HUNTINGTON — Conference USA’s dominoes are falling and there aren’t many left to stand after Old Dominion announced Tuesday that it would leave the league for the Sun Belt Conference.
Old Dominion became the second school to officially do so in three days as Southern Mississippi made its announcement on Monday and had an official news conference on Tuesday.
With two of three rumored Conference USA-to-Sun Belt schools now confirmed, the only question is if the final of those three — Marshall — will follow suit and announce in the coming days.
As Marshall fan buzz resumed following Old Dominion’s announcement, Patrick Farrell, chairman of Marshall’s Board of Governors, issued a statement on social media Wednesday.
“A lot of Marshall sports fans are understandably anxious about conference realignment,” Farrell’s tweet read. “No decision has been made and discussions about our future are ongoing. I can confidently say that the timing of our decision won’t impact which conference we choose.”
Old Dominion’s announcement comes one day after Southern Miss had its news conference with Sun Belt Commissioner Keith Gill, who welcomed the Golden Eagles to the league.
Gill is expected to welcome ODU into the Sun Belt at a news conference Thursday morning in Norfolk, Virginia.
While that announcement is being made, Marshall will be making an announcement of its own — that of its next university president, which is part of Marshall’s delay in deciding its athletics future.
According to Farrell, the desire is for the new leader of the university to have input on the future home of Marshall athletics.
Farrell’s tweet on Wednesday is the latest in a week full of speculation both on the future president and the conference home of the athletics programs. However, little concrete information into the direction in which Marshall athletics will go has been available.
While Marshall has been quiet, sources from within the Conference USA schools defecting to the Sun Belt say the Herd’s switch is more a question of when than if, even speaking of the move as if it’s already happened.
“The fans here are joyous about this,” the source said. “They are glad they are in the same league as Marshall, too. Everyone here ... respect(s) the program and the history. They don’t know about the history of anyone else in the league.”
Southern Miss was the first to announce and, given the regional blueprint of the league for the Golden Eagles, that was no surprise.
In the Sun Belt, Southern Miss will have six trips under 420 miles with two of their three longest trips being Old Dominion and Marshall, with whom they were already accustomed in C-USA.
While Southern Miss’ announcement was not a surprise, Old Dominion’s official announcement on Tuesday was the seismic shift that seemed to make the addition of four teams a reality and could also complete the collapse of Conference USA.
When Conference USA had six schools leave to join the American Athletic Conference, it was Old Dominion that went public seeking to help attract schools to C-USA to maintain the league’s viability, even while Marshall and Southern Miss were initially rumored to being courted by the Sun Belt.
On Wednesday, though, Old Dominion President Brian Hemphill lauded the university’s move to the Sun Belt Conference, which is expected to occur no later than July 1, 2023.
“Joining the Sun Belt Conference is a game-changer for Old Dominion University and our athletic program,” Hemphill said. “We are excited about the expanded opportunities and limitless possibilities now and well into the future.
ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig said “the chance to enhance the overall athletic experience for the student-athletes, fans and alumni of ODU in the SBC with regional rivalries represents the perfect opportunity,” a statement which could foreshadow the future.
Selig’s reference to regional rivalries is based on adding FCS member James Madison — an old Colonial Athletic Association rival of ODU — to the Sun Belt Conference, which is part of the league’s vision to expand into the Virginias.
The additions of James Madison and Marshall would cement that Virginias blueprint while giving the league 14 football-playing members.
Just as Marshall’s timeline involves some administrative decisions that have to be finalized, James Madison’s process also has its own to-do list due to the Dukes moving from FCS to FBS.
In Virginia, such a move has to be approved by the state commission due to a 2014 bill that limits the amount of student fees that can be used for athletics within divisions.
“The commission is made up of General Assembly members, so they’ve got to go to this committee and get anointed,” a source said. “Their board also has to meet, but they are absolutely committed to this.”
James Madison has called an emergency meeting for Friday morning, expected to be on the topic of joining the Sun Belt Conference.
While the moves seem like formalities at this point, another sticking point Marshall fans have questioned about a potential move to the Sun Belt was the uncertainty surrounding men’s soccer, which is currently not offered by the Sun Belt Conference.
Solidifying a home for Marshall’s national championship program was imperative if a move was to be made.
Clarity in that situation also came on Wednesday during Old Dominion’s announcement. ODU announced all sports would compete in the Sun Belt Conference except for rowing, lacrosse (AAC) and field hockey (Big East).
That means the Sun Belt Conference, which did not offer men’s soccer in 2021, will reinstate the sport after reaching the minimum number of teams for a conference to sponsor a sport (six).
Not only will men’s soccer be offered by the Sun Belt, but the quality of competition should be elite and could instantly be one of the nation’s top leagues.
In addition to Old Dominion, Marshall and James Madison — should they join — would offer a pair of national-caliber programs that have made noise at the NCAA level.
Coastal Carolina, a full Sun Belt member that joined Conference USA for men’s soccer in 2021, is another NCAA-caliber program.
Full-sport members Georgia State and Georgia Southern, which currently play men’s soccer in the Mid-American Conference, can return to their home league as well.
There is also the possibility of the Sun Belt luring teams such as Kentucky and South Carolina — two SEC programs that currently play in Conference USA — to join for men’s soccer, which would be a coup for the league.
The Sun Belt could also make a play for West Virginia’s nationally ranked men’s soccer program, which is also in limbo with Conference USA’s fate.
The Mountaineers are slated to join Conference USA in 2022 after leaving the Mid-American Conference, but with the future of C-USA in doubt and the relationship between the staffs at Marshall and WVU, a move to the Sun Belt is feasible — especially if the Sun Belt stays true to limiting travel, which was a sticking point in comparisons between the Sun Belt and Conference USA.
“We were told in an internal meeting that the Sun Belt has promised to look at scheduling in all sports to try and limit East and West travel,” the source said. “That’s something that Conference USA did not do.
“This is all so new, but they have promised Marshall, ODU and Southern Miss. They know the travel problems they’ve had in Conference USA and they’ve promised to try and limit that.”
Once Marshall announces its presidential choice on Thursday, it is expected that Farrell will give an updated timeline on when a decision could come.
As it stands, Marshall is still in Conference USA along with UTEP, Louisiana Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and FIU.
There are rumors that C-USA is seeking to survive with the potential additions of several schools, many of which are in Texas and the southwest.
An inquiry for an interview request to Marshall President Jerome Gilbert was not immediately returned on Wednesday afternoon.