GREENSBORO — The move is official: N.C. A&T’s board of trustees voted 12-1 this morning to leave the MEAC and join the Big South after the 2020-21 school year.
That leaves one last trip through the league A&T helped charter in 1970, a lame duck’s swan song after 50 years.
And it leaves a whole lot of convincing of skeptical alumni that the Big South is a better fit for today’s Aggies than the all-HBCU leagues of their past.
Tim King understands. An A&T alumnus, King is the trustee who led the board’s 11-member Athletics Assessment Committee that recommended the move.
“You have to get your heart and your head in the right place,” King said. “Your heart says it’s easier to stay where you are because it’s what you love. You enjoy the camaraderie of going to games and seeing all your friends. But that’s not all that we are about, so this becomes a head decision for us.
“We have a bit of communicating and educating to do for our alums, and I’m very confident that once they see the data, they’ll understand that this makes the most sense for us today, despite what your heart tells you to do.”
The data shows A&T is joining a more competitive league on July 1, 2021. The MEAC’s conference Rating Percentage Index for football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and softball is anywhere from three to nine slots below the Big South.
The data also shows A&T lands in a much more compact league. The Aggies will be one of 11 full members in the Big South: four in North Carolina, four in South Carolina and three in Virginia.
The Aggies trade flights to Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman and long bus rides to Delaware State and Md.-Eastern Shore for an average trip of 154 miles.
“We’re a bus league,” Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “… And A&T is right in the center of our geographic footprint.”
A&T’s football team will still face trips to far-flung associate members Monmouth and Northern Alabama once every two years, but the Aggies’ other 16 sports will see vastly reduced travel, athletics director Earl Hilton said, and that means more quality time on campus.
Reduced travel means reduced costs, Hilton said, which could offset the windfall A&T has received by winning four of the first five Celebration Bowl football games.
“Our travel expenses last year were about $1.4 million,” Hilton said. “If we’re able to save one-third of that, it will be a wash. It will be a net zero. The Celebration Bowl has been extraordinarily good to us. But it’s not something we can budget. We can’t count on going every year. And it’s not set in stone that it will always exist. This is the last year of the six-year deal (that created the game).”
A&T will face some immediate costs. There’s a $250,000 exit fee from the MEAC, and a $381,000 Big South entrance fee payable in three annual installments.
The largest hurdle, however, is perception. The only other historically black university in the Big South is Hampton, which left the MEAC after the 2017-18 school year.
“I get it. This is new and different,” Hilton said. “And I won’t pretend to understand the cultural significance of being in an HBCU and playing in an HBCU conference. I won’t pretend that I understand what that feels like. But I do know that Aggies are not afraid of challenges, and they will expect for us to excel wherever we go.”
A&T Chancellor Dr. Harold Martin said the change in leagues is in line with other changes at the university during his tenure.
“Change is tough. We understand that,” Martin said. “We value being a historically black university, our history and culture, and the students who come here. But we also have to be relevant and competitive. So the changes we keep making for the university aren’t designed to do anything but continue to make us competitive over time.”
Martin has been an apostle of change. He arrived at A&T in 2009, after seven consecutive years of declining enrollment. A&T now has the largest enrollment of any four-year HBCU in the country at 12,556.
“All the major changes we’ve made are positioning us to be a very attractive place for bright and talented students,” Martin said. “These tough decisions, many of our constituents look at it from an emotional perspective. We have to look at it from a business perspective while understanding the emotion involved.”
A&T fields 17 men’s and women’s sports teams and has won 55 MEAC championships since the league’s inaugural 1971-72 season.
And now the Aggies are headed elsewhere.
“What’s relevant to young people today is different than what was relevant 20 years ago and what will be relevant 10 years from now,” Martin said. “I remind our alums, ‘Your children and your grandchildren will not go to the A&T that you went to.’ They won’t. … So we’ve got to align the university not to what you want to keep as important as an alum, but to what these bright kids are looking for when they come out of high school, what industries are looking for from our graduates today.
“I know it’s a sensitive conversation with some of our constituents, but almost every major decision we’ve made has been, too. … I can stand before them and take the hit, but also push back and say, ‘You’ve got to recognize and embrace change.’”