Complexity of the conference shuffle

Ray Pierce and Carroll are holding their own so far in the CCIW, just as the University planned when they made the investments in preparation for the conference change.
Photo by Robert Colleta, Carroll athletics


We call it the Conference Shuffle, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

You can’t just take a bunch of teams in geographic proximity and deal them out. Behind the scenes, changes in conference memberships take years of negotiation with consideration of sports offered, campus culture, academic reputation, travel costs, level of competition, and school mission, among other things. It’s not always cut and dry and rarely so obvious as it might seem.

This season, Carroll moved from the Midwest Conference to the CCIW and Merchant Marine left the Landmark for the Skyline. In both cases, the schools are returning to conferences they left years earlier, but for very different reasons.

“In the last ten years, we’ve increased our enrollment almost two-fold, added many new majors, many new academic buildings, many facility upgrades,” says Carroll men’s basketball coach, Paul Combs. “We just became more like the CCIW from an academic, enrollment, and location standpoint.”

For the Merchant Marine Academy, logistics had a lot to do with making a move. “The Landmark was a phenomenal conference for us academically and competitively – particularly for our men’s sports,” says Merchant Marine athletic director Mo White, “On top of the cost of traveling, coupled with a lot of weekend travel, there was a lot expense and missed class time.”

The Mariners slot back into the Skyline, which has a smaller geographic footprint (even more so when Albany-based Sage leaves for the Empire 8 next year), allowing for a better fit in the rigorous service-academy schedule. It will also provide a more manageable level of competition for women’s sports, “We’re hoping they can be at the top half of the conference as opposed to the very bottom,” says White, who’s also used the change to balance resource allocations across all sports at Merchant Marine.

Ithaca will be mostly moving from the Empire 8 to the Liberty League next year. I say ‘mostly,’ because the baseball team will remain an extra season to give the Empire 8 some more time to keep their recently achieved AQ for the Division III playoffs.

“We negotiated an early departure,” says athletic director Susan Bassett, “The league requires a two-year exit notification and we negotiated a year and a half. It would have been a two and a half year process because we were accepted for membership [in the LL] last December. My colleagues in the Empire 8 understand. We’ve been very collegial and I think it’s gone as well as it could possibly go.” 

Bassett was emphatic that the Liberty’s academic reputation was the driving force for the move. As I noted in my recruiting column from Jan. 6, the Liberty League is among the most desirable conferences for students looking for the most challenging academic environment.

“I didn’t realize how much it would affect recruiting,” says Ithaca women’s basketball coach, Dan Raymond, “A student contacted us this summer, she said because she heard Ithaca was moving to the Liberty League. I didn’t expect that.”

The Liberty League is also in a pinch because the NEWMAC will be sponsoring football for the first time next season and three LL teams will be joining, leaving just five football playing members when seven are required for the AQ. “Ithaca College was invited to apply for Liberty League membership several years ago, and went through an initial process, but didn’t advance from there” says Bassett, “One of the things that probably helped at this point was the fact that we have a football program.”

The Liberty still needs one more football team to retain its automatic bid, but will most likely go the route of recruiting an affiliate member. “Ten full members is a large enough size. It’s an even number; it’s great from a travel partner perspective, but the number of league weekends needed for basketball has already pushed the league schedule back to December.” Those are just the scheduling complexities of just one sport; Ithaca sponsors 25 in total.

Bassett understands the needs of her new conference because she and her staff are pulling double duty this year, attending meetings and contributing as members of both conferences. One of the behind the scenes responsibilities of changing conferences that the average fan never sees.

Sometimes it takes a real investment of money to make the move well. “We’ve put $5 million into our fieldhouse,” says Combs of Carroll, “We have a president and administration that wants to compete with the best, not just academically, but athletically as well.” 

The CCIW is certainly among the best, and not just in basketball.

So Carroll's teams will have to compete with one of the top performing conferences in Division III across every single sport. The men’s basketball team is earning some respect, having taken down North Park, Carthage, and Illinois Wesleyan already this season and currently sitting in playoff position. The women’s team has struggled, however (currently 1-8 in conference), as will other sports – but that is why Carroll is making the investment in athletics to be seen as a competitive member of the CCIW on the court and not just off it.

Many teams who change conferences will see a stark uptick in quality of opponents across all sports. The Empire 8 women’s basketball competition is stiff this year, with Ithaca (13-3 overall) sitting in third behind Hartwick and Stevens.

“I believe that the Liberty, top to bottom, will be a little more consistent in terms of level of competition, even if the top teams in both conferences are very similar,” says Raymond, “We’ll also be playing Friday night, then Saturday afternoon each weekend, which is a big adjustment – and most of our conference games will be at least three hours away.”

Some of these behind-the-scenes issues are not just reasons a team or conference changes membership. They also influence why a conference doesn’t add teams. SUNY Canton and Alfred State are two upstate New York independents that would seem a good fit for the NEAC, which has two fewer teams in its northern division than in its southern.

“Sixteen teams is too large for one AQ,” says NEAC commissioner Candice Poiss Murray. “We are actually changing to a semi-divisional schedule to reduce conference games.”

Penn College will move to the northern division to even out numbers and then a rotational schedule will be put in place whereby teams will only play four cross-division basketball teams each year. Adds Murray, “Teams want to do an opening weekend tournament or a holiday tournament, but they couldn’t do that because our conference schedule took up too many openings.” This move will also likely enable NEAC teams to improve their SOS for Pool C consideration, something that has hurt conference teams in the past.

It may seem like a difficult and complicated process – and it is – but is here to help you navigate it. We cover each of these moves as they’re announced and there’s a dedicated thread on the message boards where questions are answered and topics pertaining to conference changes are discussed

Often we come to sports as a way to escape the politics of our world, but Division III is not immune to those machinations either. Even those announced conference changes are probably not the end.

“We’re hoping this all settles out for everyone; I think stability is a good thing for everyone,” says Bassett, though many observers and participants expect further shuffles in coming years. White adds, “You’re going to see New England blow up again. Football is going to drive that, but it will have an impact across all sports.” 

If and when it happens, rest assured it won’t just be a random shuffle, but a complex and occasionally chaotic experience we’ll be here to unravel for you. 

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Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon