ODU's leap to Conference USA risky but understandable

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NORFOLK — Blaine Taylor, Old Dominion's incurably glib basketball coach, framed the school's move to Conference USA best.

"It's like a no-fault divorce," he said at Thursday's press conference/pep rally at Ballard Stadium. "It's not our fault we want to play Division I-A football, and it's not the CAA's fault they can't provide it."

Indeed, the Colonial Athletic Association, the Monarchs' present home, is not equipped to elevate en masse from the Championship Subdivision to Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A. And there never was doubting ODU's long-term goal of upgrading.

But no one, not university president John Broderick, athletic director Wood Selig or football coach Bobby Wilder envisioned the move transpiring at what Selig called "lightning speed."

That is the danger here.

The Monarchs' football roll out has been flawless to date, from fundraising to infrastructure enhancement to sellout crowds reveling in a wildly successful team. But ODU has been playing football for three years, hardly ideal incubation for what lies ahead.

"The heat just got turned up dramatically," Wilder said.

So why move so quickly and prematurely?

Two reasons: This spring's seismic conference realignments and the possibility of the NCAA placing another moratorium on upgrades to the Bowl Subdivision.

Given those factors, and ODU's optimistic financial projections, Broderick, the Board of Visitors and Selig took a risky but understandable plunge a mere four-to-five weeks after initial contact with Conference USA.

Selig anticipates the move will increase annual athletic department expenses by approximately $3 million, or 10 percent, to $35 million. He believes revenue from Conference USA's media contracts, new private donations — more than $3 million over five years is pledged already — and a modest ticket-price hike of 40 cents will more than cover the costs of additional scholarships and travel.

That meets Broderick's mandate of, "We can't do this on the backs of our students."

Translation: No new student fees to finance the upgrade.

As it should be. According to USA Today's database of athletic department finances, ODU used $23.9 million in student fees for its sports teams in 2010-11.That ranked sixth among the nation's 227 public Division I schools.

But money matters weren't enough to push this decision. The Monarchs would have remained in the CAA had conferences nationwide not been expanding and contracting, often in the same breath, or had the NCAA not been contemplating another freeze on Bowl Subdivision's membership.

"For me personally, it (created) a major sense of urgency," Selig said of a possible moratorium.

The NCAA instituted such from 2007-11, and colleagues around the country told Selig another could be on the horizon, for as long as 10 years.

Add Conference USA's changes — the league countered losing four schools with a rapid-fire expansion that reaches six with ODU — and Selig concluded "the optimal time was now."

Debate the decision all you'd like — there's plenty to ponder — but there's no questioning other words Selig used.

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