Starting in the 2013-2014 season, University of Maine at Presque Isle and Mills College in Oakland, Calif., will play in the same athletic conference. These now-Division III schools are over 3,000 miles apart. How did this happen?
The recent realignments by schools chasing football dollars have led to a complete clusterfuck, but it's important to note that the structural problems and institutional incentives of the NCAA can make these clusterfucks happen at any level of competition. The Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) is perhaps the most extreme case. Here's a brief history, with maps.
The Great South Athletic Conference was founded in 1999 by five charter members, marked below with blue dots. As with our earlier conference realignment maps, the larger circle is centered on the geographic midpoint of the conference, with the radius equal to the average distance of each institution from this midpoint. This means that the size and location of the circle is a good representation of the regionality and "compactness" of the conference:
In its first season, the GSAC was about what you'd expect from a small D-III conference. The drive between Stillman and Maryville—the two most distant schools—would take about five hours.
Fast-forward a decade:
In 2002, Stillman—in gray above—left the conference and was replaced by Huntingdon, another Alabama school. The GSAC also added its first two women's colleges—marked in magenta—in Agnes Scott and Wesleyan (Ga.), and added a third in Spelman College the next year. Fisk left the conference in 2006, later joining the NAIA, and the GSAC added another women's school in 2009 (Salem), and a coed school for the 2010-2011 season (Covenant). Most of the new programs were in the greater Atlanta region; despite all the changes the conference actually became more compact during this period.
But there was trouble brewing. At any level of NCAA competition the best conferences are those whose champions automatically qualify for the NCAA championship tournament. Schools from non-AQ conferences can still make the tournament as an at-large bid, but this path is generally much more difficult (for example, only two of 28 teams can make the men's D-III lacrosse championship out of a non-AQ). To achieve this "AQ" status for a sport, a Division III conference must comprise seven full-time programs that have fielded the sport for at least two seasons (page 219). This is one more program than is required for most Division I sports (page 391), a tweak intended to limit the number of automatic qualifiers from the nation's many D-III schools.
The GSAC got to seven women's athletic programs in 2002 with the admission of Huntingdon, Agnes Scott, and Wesleyan (Ga.), gaining AQ status in several women's sports two seasons later. Unfortunately, the conference had never had more than five men's programs for any given season, and Covenant College was still a provisional NCAA member, meaning the school wouldn't count toward the seven until at least the 2013-2014 season.
So this happened:
In spring 2011, the three remaining GSAC charter-members—LaGrange, Piedmont, and Maryville—announced that they'd be moving to the USA South Athletic Conference (né the Dixie Conference), granting their men's teams AQ status. This put GSAC on the clock. Down from nine women's programs to six, the conference stood to lose its AQ status for women's sports after a two-season grace period unless it picked up at least one more school (page 220). Unfortunately, there weren't a lot of suitable options left in this part of the South.
Instead, the commissioners instituted a somewhat ingenious solution, following the letter but not the spirit of the NCAA's frustrating conference rules. The GSAC added Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and Trinity Washington in D.C., two women's schools (though Trinity accepts some male undergraduates) that weren't particularly close to the original region of the conference.
The trick: These schools were "championship" members, meaning they would not play against other GSAC schools during the regular season, but they would participate in the GSAC conference championships to determine qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Sure enough, a quick perusal of GSAC standings from the 2012 women's soccer season shows that Trinity Washington and Pine Manor didn't actually play any GSAC teams, and also that Wesleyan had a rough year. Agnes Scott won the GSAC championship and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Which brings us to the upcoming 2013-2014 season:
In spring 2012, Huntingdon and Covenant—the two remaining coed GSAC schools—announced that they'd also be making the move to the USA South. In the fall, Spelman College made national headlines by deciding to cut its athletics department altogether and route the money into campus-wide exercise programs. The GSAC was back down to five women's programs, and once again on the NCAA clock. So, two weeks ago, the conference added three more "championship" schools: Mills College, Finlandia University, and University of Maine at Presque Isle.
These programs are really, really out of the way. Mills College is in the San Francisco Bay Area. Finlandia is on a small peninsula that juts north out of Michigan's Upper Peninusla, which is already as far north as you can get in that state. University of Maine at Presque Isle is in the French-Canadian northlands of the state, due east of Quebec City. Female athletes at these three schools will now get a real chance to compete for an NCAA championship; all they have to do in exchange is make a once-a-year, thousands-of-miles pilgrimage to the "Great South" for their sports' annual conference tournament, at their schools' expense. Instead of limiting automatic qualifiers, the guidelines just encouraged conferences to stretch across the continent.
GSAC's commissioner, Joeleen Akin of Agnes Scott College, very politely declined to talk to us, so we asked NCAA compliance guru John Infante. "Division III realignment is almost exclusively about postseason access and automatic qualification," he wrote in an email, citing the recent departure of seven members of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference to form their own conference. Partly, the move was about reducing travel costs, but Infante also pointed out that a member of the new conference would get to compete for an automatic bid against only six other schools, instead of 11 in the SCAC.
This new alignment is a smart survivalist move by the Great South Athletic Conference. It offers a great opportunity for female athletes at these recently-added programs. But I think most would agree that this is not the ideal structure for college athletics. It's the story of the NCAA writ small: well-intentioned rule produces unintended consequence that further distorts an already-distorted system. The Big East has done its part to make a mockery of NCAA conference structure at the national level, but as long as inflexible NCAA rules continue to encourage the breakup of smaller, regional conferences, expect others to follow in the GSAC's ever-lengthening footsteps.