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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)
In a major blow to Norfolk State and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Hampton University announced Thursday it will join the Big South Conference next season.
Hampton, one of the nation's top academic historically black colleges and universities, will leave the MEAC in July, officials said.
That means for the first time in more than a century of athletics, Hampton will not compete in an HBCU league. The Big South has no other HBCU members.
Tennessee State, a member of the Ohio Valley Conference, is the only other Division I HBCU not in a historically black league.
Norfolk State will lose its closest conference rival, while the MEAC loses a school with the deepest financial resources and some of its top athletic facilities.
The MEAC basketball tournament moved to downtown Norfolk in part because NSU and Hampton gave it a pair of nearby schools.
Whether the Pirates will participate in this year's MEAC tournament remains to be seen. When asked if the conference will allow Hampton in its championship s or to go to NCAA tournaments this school year, commissioner Dennis Thomas would not say.
"We have policies," he said. "And the conference office will follow those policies regarding the exit of Hampton from our conference."
He declined to say what the policies are, adding that after Hampton and MEAC officials discuss the issue and the league knows exactly when the Pirates plan to leave, the league will issue a statement.
Hampton did not catch the MEAC by surprise. Thomas said school president William Harvey "has been transparent in his communication to me and the conference regarding what their intentions were."
Athletic director Eugene Marshall Jr. said while the school appreciates its 22 years in the MEAC, it was time to move on.
"Hampton University is always going to be an HBCU," Marshall said. "That's not going to change. We're not (going to stop) competing against our fellow MEAC schools.
"But as we look at the bigger picture, of trying to build the best mid-sized athletic program in the country, you have to take steps. We're not leaving, We're just expanding our reach."
Asked if Hampton will make more money in the Big South, Marshall said, "I believe the move to the Big South will enhance our profile and our visibility around the nation. And that will enhance our revenue."
Responded Thomas: "I respectfully disagree. But that's the institution's perspective. They believe this is a good move for them."
Marshall said he hopes the annual Battle of the Bay football game with Norfolk State will continue, and that the two will continue to compete in other sports. NSU athletic director Marty Miller has the same hopes.
Marshall said it's possible that Hampton might play MEAC football next fall.
"That's something we have to talk about," he said. "We don't want to leave schools we had a good relationship with hanging."
He acknowledged that Hampton has been discussing membership with the Big South throughout his 3½ years at the school.
"That was one of the reasons I came here," he said about the opportunity to move to a more high-profile conference.
Harvey announced the move in a statement, saying it was made to compete in a more geographically compact league.
Although most MEAC schools are in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Washington, D.C., the league also has two members in Florida. Big South schools are confined to Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Liberty University, which is moving to the Football Bowl Subdivision in football, will remain in the Big South in all other sports. Two other state schools are in the Big South: Longwood and Radford.
Charleston Southern is the most distant Big South school from Hampton in most sports.
However, travel could be expensive in football, with football-only members Kennesaw State, located just north of Atlanta, and Monmouth in New Jersey. North Alabama joins as a football-only member in 2019.
"This means our student-athletes will spend less time traveling and more time in classes on campus," Harvey said in the news release. "This keeps the proper focus on academics, which is our chief reason for being. The smaller geographic footprint will also reduce travel expenses."
Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said the vote to admit Hampton was unanimous.
"We enjoy a wonderful relationship with Hampton University," Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said. "They will add value to the academic and athletic profile of the conference and afford us a fourth Virginia school."
The Big South is a step up in competition for Hampton in some high-profile sports. The MEAC has been consistently ranked the worst or second-worst of the 32 Division I men's basketball leagues in recent years, while the Big South has generally ranked seven or eight places higher.
In football, Realtime.rpi ranks the MEAC 20th among Division I conferences this season and the Big South 15th.
The move had long been rumored. A year ago, Big South and Hampton officials denied to The Virginian-Pilot that they had held any discussions about such a move.
Hampton previously had made overtures to the Colonial Athletic Association that were rebuffed.
Founded in 1868, Hampton is the alma mater of Booker T. Washington and Alberta Williams King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Central Collegiate Intercollegiate Athletic Association was formed on Hampton's campus in 1912. Hampton left the CIAA in 1995 to move up to Division I and the MEAC, and Norfolk State followed two years later.
The MEAC already was scheduled to lose Savannah State after this season; it is dropping to Division II. The conference will be left with 11 schools, with Maryland-Eastern Shore becoming NSU's closest rival.
NSU's Miller said he hasn't had time to assess the effect Hampton's move will have on his school.
"It will have some effect" on the MEAC basketball tournament, he added. "It helped the tournament to have Norfolk State and Hampton both in the region."
USC Upstate, which was admitted to the Big South on Wednesday, and Hampton replace VMI (Southern Conference) and Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt), which left in recent years.
Kallander said, for now, the door is closed to future Big South expansion.
"Hampton's our 12th member," he said. "We have not talked about growing beyond 12 in any serious way."
Kenneshaw State *
North Alabama (2019) *
* Football-only members
Basketball and most other sports
North Carolina A&T
North Carolina Central
South Carolina State
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