|North Carolina A&T heading to the Big South Conference in 2021|
|Aggies leaving MEAC after 50 years|
|Published Friday, February 7, 2020 12:31 pm|
|N.C. A&T ATHLETICS|
|North Carolina A&T, a founding member of the MEAC, is leaving for the Big South Conference starting in the 2021-22 academic year.|
At a time when its three flagship athletic programs are thriving, North Carolina A&T is ready to compete on a broader stage closer to home.
A founding member of the MEAC since 1971, North Carolina A&T officials announced Friday the university will join the Big South Conference, beginning competition in the 2021-22 academic year and bringing the conference’s membership to 12 teams.
The decision signaled the culmination of a five-year study which accelerated in August when the university’s Board of Trustees appointed a committee to study A&T’s athletics program and future.
“The move makes great sense for our student-athletes, for our fans and for our bottom line,” A&T chancellor Harold Martin said. “We will always have a place in our hearts for the MEAC, and we look forward to what the new conference will make possible for the Aggies.”
A&T, with enrollment of more than 12,500, is the largest historically black college in the nation. The university has competed in athletics since 1924 and counts hall of famers Al Attles (Naismith) and Elvin Bethea (NFL) among its alumni. In the classroom, A&T is recognized as a leader in technology and engineering research and has enjoyed a 59% increase in applications since 2012-13, receiving nearly 25,000 applicants prior to this academic year.
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The Aggies are leaving behind long, rich rivalries with North Carolina Central and Howard, among others, to face stiffer competition and renew battles with Hampton, which departed the MEAC to join the Big South in 2018.
Earl Hilton, A&T’s athletic director since 2011, called the process “gut-wrenching.” involving much “soul searching” but one he’s confident landed on the best answer for the university moving forward.
“Our primary driver has been and will be the welfare of our student-athletes,” Hilton said. “What is their experience at A&T and how can we act in a way that will augment it. Those considerations drove the conversations we had and the decision that was made. We feel unequivocally this will benefit in material and direct ways in their athletic and academic experiences.”
A&T’s total athletics budget was $13.52 million in 2018, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The university aims to cut significant travel expenses with the move. In the MEAC it was forced to travel to Maryland three times each year, Florida twice and to Delaware.
The 11 current Big South schools are located within North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The Aggies’ longest trips for sports other than football will be 267 miles to Charleston Southern and 248 miles to face old MEAC rival Hampton.
Hilton understands additional resources will be necessary to compete in the Big South.
“We’ll have to sit down as a staff and as an institution and make some assessments of what we can do and where we’re going,” Hilton III said. “Facilities will certainly be a part of it. That’s not just because of the Big South. That’s been a notion for a while. That will continue to be a priority for us.”
A&T enhances the Big South’s strong and growing profile in football and basketball.
The Aggies men’s basketball team is 9-1 since early January when Will Jones was named interim coach and leads the MEAC with an 8-1 mark after beating South Carolina State on Monday. The Aggies have won 15 conference championships in men’s basketball, and advanced to the NCAA tournament 10 times.
The women’s basketball program, a perennial MEAC powerhouse, is 15-6 overall and tied for third in the league with a 7-2 record. The Aggies are seeking their third consecutive 20-win season and have made four NCAA tournament appearances.
“Clearly, basketball is a priority for the Big South Conference,” commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “That’s a criteria that we look at when we think about future members of this conference. What’s their commitment to basketball? As outlined in our strategic plan, success in men’s basketball drives a lot of reputational equity, drives a lot of exposure. To be able to add two programs that are really good, successful and committed to basketball is huge for us and important to our future.”
A&T’s football program has developed into one of the nation’s most powerful and consistent contenders at the Football Championship Series level. The Aggies won the Celebration Bowl for the third consecutive year in 2019, defeating Alcorn State and have reached the FCS Championship postseason five times.
The Aggies, an 11-time MEAC champion, have been a perennial Top 25 program, compiling a 40-8 overall record and 27-4 conference mark over the last four seasons, including a perfect 12-0 campaign in 2017.
“That’s what it is, a challenge,” A&T football coach Sam Washington said. “We’re going to embrace it with open arms, hard heads and we’re really excited for the opportunity. It’s about growth, sometimes change is good. Hopefully this is one of those times.”
A&T joins a conference that’s reached the FCS quarterfinals five of the last seven years and sent multiple teams to the playoffs in four of the last six.
“I feel real good about our football right now,” Kallander said. “Clearly Kennesaw State is a national power. Monmouth is doing a great job and has risen to the top. North Alabama is historically successful. To add North Carolina A&T to that level, we’re going to be challenging for the national championship on a regular basis. All of our existing football programs are pretty young in the FCS football world.”
A&T is also a track and field powerhouse. Kayla White won the 2019 national title in the 200 meters at the NCAA women’s indoor championships.
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