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Naples Daily News (Florida)
Although USC Upstate is leaving after 11 years for the Big South, the Atlantic Sun is rising.
Division II's North Alabama already was ready to replace the Spartans starting in the fall, but on Thursday the ASUN, of which Florida Gulf Coast University has been a member since 2007, added Liberty University of Lynchburg, Virginia, of the Big South.
A private Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell, Liberty also will begin ASUN play in the fall.
"They bring outstanding academics and athletics that will raise the ASUN in those areas," ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart said. "It's also a place that is growing and we like to consider the ASUN growing. It's a university that competes with the goal of championships. And that's something we want to continue to build — a conference with teams that are achievers and want to compete in the postseason.
"And if you haven't been to Liberty in the past few years, you'll really enjoy visiting their campus. It's just a wonderful campus from the hospitality to the atmosphere. Their facilities are second to none and they have a good following.
"We think it's a win all the way around and we look forward to a long partnership."
Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw apparently feels the same way.
"On behalf of our coaches, staff and student-athletes, we are excited and honored to join the ASUN as our all-sports conference," McCaw said. "Moreover, we are deeply appreciative to commissioner Ted Gumbart, the ASUN leadership and member institutions for this opportunity. The ASUN footprint will allow Liberty to further extend our brand into New Jersey, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida."
FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh also is a fan of this move.
"Certainly they bring a program with considerable overall strength in a lot of sports that we sponsor," Kavanagh said. "And we are always hoping to work to make the ASUN stronger with our own contributions and having other members that can do the same thing certainly lends itself to better opportunities for strength of schedule internally and an opportunity, hopefully, for more at-large bids and better seeds."
Liberty's addition gives the ASUN nine teams. It takes seven to qualify for automatic NCAA tournament or meet berths — a conference with six has two years to add another — so expanding with Liberty gives the ASUN some cushion.
"Obviously there's some long-range planning we've been doing the last five years," Gumbart said. "And we actually have some options that we have not gone forward with at this point in time. We feel very good about where we are. And if the group of presidents determine there's a need for further expansion we'll evaluate the candidates. And if we feel any of them will add to the strength of the ASUN, we'll consider them."
A ninth member also gives ASUN programs two more conference games, meaning they'll have fewer nonconference matchups to pick up, something of great help to mid-majors.
Liberty decided to move from FCS football in the Big South to FBS independent status last season. Ironically, the ASUN and Big South have a football partnership. Liberty will remain an FBS independent.
"Liberty's move in football caused some strain in their relationship with their conference," Gumbart said.
FGCU does not have football. The only sport the Eagles have that the Flames do not is beach volleyball.
Liberty is 885 miles from FGCU's campus.
"It will be a challenge to all of us this far away — financially and from a logistical standpoint — but others probably feel the same way about Fort Myers," Kavanagh said. "The landscape of what college athletics is right now is it's not as regionally aligned distance-wise as we used to be in many conferences. I guess you resign yourself to the fact that that's a part of what we deal with."
Liberty and FGCU are members of the Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association and ASUN's indoor track and field teams — which don't have the capabilities to host — competed at the Flames' new facility for their championships in February, so there already was a relationship between ASUN and Liberty officials.
Liberty has spent a whopping $196 million on facilities since 2010. That includes $20 million for a 2008 renovation to the 9,547-seat Vines Center Basketball Arena, $20 million on its baseball stadium and $10 million for its softball stadium. In 2020, the Vines Center will mostly be replaced by Liberty Arena which is under construction and will seat 4,000. The Vines Center will host games that could attract more fans than that. Liberty has not yet released the expected cost of the new arena.
"They've certainly had a tremendous physical plan," Kavanagh said.
Liberty men's basketball went 22-15 last season and made the Big South championship game before going on a run to the Collegeinsider.com semifinals. Average home attendance was 2,045.
Women's basketball averaged 1,233 fans at home games, was 24-10 and won the Big South regular-season and tournament titles before falling at third-seeded Tennessee in an NCAA tourney first-round matchup last season.
Liberty baseball has a winning record, and softball (47-12) won the Big South tournament and is in the NCAA tournament. Men's soccer was 10-6-1 last season and women's soccer went 10-7-3.
"They've been pretty much the dominant team in the Big South in terms of all-sports trophies," Kavanagh said.
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