One to grow on

Covenant won the men's basketball championship last season, which was just its third in the USA South.
Covenant athletics file photo 

The USA South Athletic Conference is one of the largest in Division III and soon we can strike “one of.”

Last season the conference had 11 men’s basketball programs and 13 women’s programs. This fall it will add Agnes Scott, Salem and Wesleyan (Ga.) for women’s sports. And 12 months later it will add Berea, Brevard and Pfeiffer for men’s and women’s sports. If nothing else changes, the conference will have 19 women’s basketball programs and 14 men’s programs in 2017-18.

We spoke with conference commissioner Rita Wiggs who has been the conference’s full-time commissioner for 15 years and was its part-time commissioner for one more. The former Methodist athletic director and women's basketball coach is in the final days of her tenure as commissioner, and during that time she  has seen the conference lose members (Shenandoah, Christopher Newport) and gain them (Covenant, Huntingdon, LaGrange, Maryville, Piedmont), even before this latest round of moves. We discussed how the conference evaluates potential members, how it will handle scheduling and how many more teams the conference may look to add.

Q: The conference will expand twice, by three schools each time, in the next couple years and it will pick up some very different programs along the way. Next season Agnes Scott, Salem and Wesleyan (Ga.) will move from the Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) to your conference for women’s basketball. How did that move come together?

A: I think there were a couple of things going on here. The five co-ed members that had been in the Great South had come into the USA South in a couple of waves. Our presidents were interested in going into divisions with our women’s teams. So bringing those three in gave us the opportunity to balance those two divisions a little better.

For next year it’ll be eight teams in each division. That’s about as even as we can get. Obviously, in another year or so, when these other three enter, that will change that balance one way or the other – one team on side or the other.

But that was the impetus behind it. It was to get our women’s teams to a point where we could do divisional play and have good schedules and divisions for our teams, with possibly some cross over play between the two divisions but most of the play would be in divisions.

Q: How did the move with Berea, Brevard and Pfeiffer come together?

Again with that we were trying to come to some sort of balance with our co-ed institutions. That was an impetus with that – try and balance two divisions so we can more divisional play with our men’s teams also.

It varies from sport to sport. Obviously football would not be in divisions but the others would be. With our men’s teams not being as many schools, there might be a little more cross over play than we have on the women’s side. But obviously the goal is to provide good, strong schedules for our women’s teams and the same thing for our men’s teams.

Q: Will you break out the divisions by geography?

Yes. We’re looking at it to see if there would be North-South or if it’s more East-West. We’re still making those decisions. But it’ll probably be more of a North-South geographical arrangement.

Q: Berea, Brevard and Pfeiffer are in different stages of the process for transitioning into Division III. When you look at adding a potential conference member that isn’t in Division III, what extra due diligence do you have to do?

Brevard, like Pfeiffer, will be an exploratory member of Division III next year as it starts the transition from Division II.
Brevard athletics file photo 

Obviously with any institutions that we’re looking to add, first and foremost, they have to be a private liberal arts institution. Then the next thing would be location. Are they in our geographical footprint? Will they help us from a geographic perspective?

Then obviously the academic profiles of the institutions, their athletic profiles, the sports they offer on the men’s side and the women’s side. Their administration – do they have strong leaders both on their campus and within their athletic department? Gender equity and diversity with their programs.

There’s a wide range of things that we look at. But first and foremost is that they’re private liberal arts and their location, and then that they’re a strong academic institution.

Q: When these conference moves come together, who reaches out to whom first?

Usually the schools reach out to the conference. That’s been kind of our history with it. Occasionally it goes the other direction, but usually a school will reach out.

Initially those conversations are usually private. A [school] president to a president or a president to a commissioner. “We may be making this move but it has not been announced yet. It has not been approved by our board.” Whatever the situation may be. But they need to know if certain possibilities are available. Very, very private, confidential conversations and then it begins to move forward from there.

Obviously, if it’s transitioning like Brevard or Pfeiffer – Berea is further along in that process – you have to look at, ‘Okay, those will be provisional members for X number of years,’ how does that impact our scheduling? How does that impact the conference? And pretty much the only thing it impacts is your scheduling and your tournaments.

Q: Your women’s basketball programs cover a wide spectrum of strengths. You have Maryville which made the Sweet 16, has been nationally ranked and has a national profile. And you have some other programs like Mary Baldwin which was winless last season. How do you balance the interests of both types of programs, particularly those at Maryville’s end of the spectrum, with the NCAA emphasizing strength-of-schedule for at-large bids?

Maryville (Tenn.) finished last season ranked No. 17 after reaching the NCAA Tournament sectional semifinals. 

A: I think going into divisions will help with that some. It will give two divisions that are more balanced. You want to look at keeping the access ratio to our championships, which is the conduit to the NCAA playoffs. We want to keep that at a good level and equitable with what our men’s access ratio is. So we’ve looked at that and how many teams from each division would move into our tournament and that’ll probably be at about 63 percent, which is we feel a pretty strong ratio. So coming out of each division hopefully we would have our top four teams or so from each side, which would make it very competitive for the automatic qualifying bid.

Q: So you’re not looking to have an extensive conference schedule where each team plays every other team at least once and sometimes twice, leaving a very small number of non-conference games? There will still be opportunities for teams like Maryville to travel out of region in the regular season if they want to?

A: Exactly. If they wanted to play the stronger teams in the other division, then they could certainly do that. That would count as non-conference from our perspective. They could keep it more geographic center but still do that or, as you said, go to other tournaments or other competitions that would enhance their strength of schedule. And we have several teams in the conference that would be looking to do that. So in scheduling we try to be sensitive to those that are in the upper-tier in a sense, but also to our other schools.

Q: You’re on track to have 19 women’s basketball teams and 14 men’s basketball teams in a couple seasons. Is there an ideal number of members that the conference would like to have?

As you mentioned, in the fall of 2017, it’ll be the 19 women’s teams and 14 co-ed institutions. I think that’s probably at this point as large as the conference will become. There could be maybe one additional, but I don’t see that on the horizon at this point. I think the conference has gotten to the position that our presidents envisioned as far as enough institutions to be able to look at strong divisional play. And then see how that works out and then make decisions from there.