Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M To Move To SWAC In 2021, Leaving MEAC Unsettled
Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M in one year will leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, where they have played since 1979, and join the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
The move, which the two schools first announced last month, will take place in one year on July 1, 2021. It has significant effects on both the schools and the fates of the MEAC and SWAC, the two Division I conferences composed of historically Black colleges and universities.
“I think it’s a great move for our program, athletic department and university,” BCU coach Jonathan Hernandez said. “We know the SWAC has great athletics and great people who run their programs. We’re all looking forward to this change and starting a new adventure in the SWAC.”
“We’re excited,” FAMU coach Jamey Shouppe said. “It’s not that the MEAC is a bad conference, I just think the SWAC is better for baseball, anyway. The MEAC is very competitive at the top end, but the bottom end of the SWAC is more competitive. We’re going to have to get better to compete for a championship.”
BCU and FAMU have been the MEAC’s baseball powerhouses since the conference re-added baseball in 1984 to the roster of sports it sponsors. Of the 36 conference titles that have been awarded since then, BCU has won 19 and FAMU has won eight. FAMU dominated the conference in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before BCU rose to prominence and won 18 titles in 22 years from 1996-2017. The Rattlers have bounced back in recent seasons under Shouppe and won the championship in 2015 and 2019.
The SWAC has historically been the better of the two conferences in baseball. Southern is the most storied HBCU program—it won the 1959 NAIA World Series, it won the SWAC 14 times in 33 seasons under former coach Roger Cador and in 2003 Rickie Weeks became the first player at an HBCU to win Player of the Year honors—and Grambling State and Jackson State both have extensive traditions as well. In more recent years, Alabama State and Texas Southern have also risen to prominence. Adding BCU and FAMU to that group further strengthens the SWAC as a baseball conference.
Mervyl Melendez, now the coach at Florida International, began his career in the MEAC and SWAC. He played at BCU and then coached at his alma mater for 12 years, winning 11 MEAC titles. He then moved to Alabama State, which he built into one of the SWAC’s best programs, culminating with a 24-0 conference record in 2016 and the Hornets’ first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
In short, Melendez knows what it takes to win both in the MEAC and the SWAC. He said the Wildcats and Rattlers will need to adjust to their new conference.
“The SWAC has a little bit richer tradition in HBCU baseball,” Melendez said. “A lot of them have had success and the success has shuffled between different programs in baseball. I think the challenge both for Bethune and Florida A&M is see how the competition is different and then recruit according to the new conference.”
Their moves weren’t made with baseball as a primary factor, but there will be real benefits on the diamond for BCU and FAMU.
The MEAC had this year abandoned their divisional format for baseball, which, for the two Florida schools, would have meant longer travel to get to schools in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia instead of their longest trips being to North Carolina. The move to the SWAC means they will mostly be traveling to Alabama and Mississippi, a much easier trip, especially for FAMU.
“With us playing in the (SWAC) East Division, our farthest trip is 6.5 hours,” Shouppe said. “We had just voted to do away with divisions in the MEAC which was going to be worse for us with travel.”
The level of competition in the SWAC with the addition of BCU and FAMU should be elevated, which will help every team. While an at-large bid from the conference will remain a longshot, better competition should lead to better RPIs and that could be the difference between being a No. 4 seed or a No. 3 seed in a regional. BCU earned a No. 3 seed in the Gainesville Regional in 2017 and went on to reach the regional final, its best postseason showing in program history.
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At the same time, however, the departures of BCU and FAMU are a significant blow to the MEAC. The conference last year lost Savannah State, which reclassified to Division II, and North Carolina A&T previously announced it will move to the Big South Conference after the 2021 season. Those defections mean the MEAC will be down to five baseball-playing members for the 2022 season.
A conference is required to have at least six members in any given sport to receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. If a conference falls to five members, a two-year waiver is automatically granted to give the conference time to regroup. If it drops to four members, however, the waiver is not applicable. So, as long as the MEAC doesn’t lose any more members, its automatic bid is safe through 2023.
The MEAC got some good news Tuesday when Delaware State, which had been rumored to also be considering leaving the conference, announced it would remain. But the conference still needs a long-term solution for baseball in place by the start of the 2024 season to protect its automatic bid.
The MEAC could look for expansion candidates (the conference only has six football-playing members, the minimum required) or try to find an affiliate member for baseball. The conference is working with a consulting firm to help its expansion search. It could also perhaps coax either Howard or Morgan State into restarting baseball. Both schools cut their programs in 2002 but do sponsor softball. Restarting a sport in the current financial crisis college sports finds itself in without existing facilities (which was part of the reasoning for Howard to cut baseball) would be challenging.
Baseball may not be at the front of mind for the MEAC’s decision makers, as the conference’s position for football is precarious, but the conference must find a solution for the sport. No matter what path the MEAC decides to take, it is clear the departures will drastically change the conference’s baseball profile. The MEAC has awarded 42 baseball championships in its history. By July 1, 2021, the five baseball-playing members that remain in the conference will only account for two (1995 Coppin State and 1989 Delaware State).
The void at the top of the conference left by the departures of BCU, FAMU and NC A&T is an opportunity for some team to create a new tradition. The race to fill that void is on.