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CAA makes best of difficult situation

Now that the excitement has worn off from the Colonial Athletic Association's food chain addition of Elon, it's worth asking: What did you expect?

A moderately successful athletic program that's competed at the NCAA Division I level for all of 14 years, from a lower-rated league, doesn't begin to compensate for losing marquee programs and charter members.

With the addition of Elon, the CAA is now an even 10 members — provided nobody else bolts in the next year — and approaches the permissible limit of singular nicknames in one conference. Tribe, Pride, Phoenix? Really?

CAA commissioner Tom Yeager and his crew talk about being pro-active, as it relates to expansion and conference membership, but there's only so much they can do within the present caste system of college athletics.

Yeager has been bashed in some quarters, particularly in the past year, as the CAA seemed to deteriorate around him. He was Dead Commissioner Walking, captain of the SS Has Been.

He couldn't keep VCU or George Mason. He couldn't land Davidson. He settled for a couple of other Southern Conference schools, one of which he probably wouldn't have considered five years ago.

A case can be made that Yeager placed too much emphasis on football at the expense of hoops, the conference's traditional raison d'etre.

Yet even with a structure weighted toward allowing the most successful programs to keep more NCAA money and receive greater exposure, that wouldn't prevent programs from jumping once realignment dominoes started to fall.

Plus, such a structure goes against the grain of the collegial spirit that's been part of the collective since the CAA's formation almost 30 years ago.

Yeager has managed as best he can, given the forces beyond his control. The Big Ten and ACC decimated the Big East, whose basketball schools chose to splinter off. They, in turn, targeted several successful and compatible programs in the Atlantic 10, which recruited the CAA's more successful programs.

Factor in football ambitions — hello, Old Dominion and Georgia State — and any mid-level league that plays FCS football is in almost impossible situation in the trickle-down world of conference realignment.

Yeager and the CAA responded in the only way possible: target schools in leagues below them. They become academic evaluators and athletic venture capitalists. They seek schools with reasonably similar academic profiles and standards. Because they aren't going to replace value with value, they must look for athletic departments and teams that have the potential to become a VCU or a Mason or an ODU.

The CAA is left with just three original members: William and Mary, James Madison and UNC Wilmington.

W&M has always been something of an outlier because of its size and academic profile. Competitive histories aside, Elon might have as much in common with William and Mary as JMU or Wilmington.

UNCW spent several years as a southern outpost and watched as the conference peered north and focused on football. They could be excused for looking at the additions of C of C and Elon and thinking: "About time."

JMU is arguably most put out by realignment and upheaval. The Dukes watched rivals and peer institutes ODU, VCU and George Mason move out of the neighborhood and get replaced by friends of friends and those who received the homeowners' association seal of approval.

And don't discount how galling it is to a broad segment of JMU faithful that Old Dominion and its fledgling football program leapfrogged them into the Football Bowl Subdivision, by virtue of geography over accomplishments and track records.

The CAA wasn't going to be able to keep VCU and its upwardly mobile hoops program and a coach it's desperate to keep. The A-10 routinely lands multiple NCAA bids, and its revenue sharing structure allows schools to keep more of what they earn.

The only surprise about George Mason's departure for the A-10 is that it didn't occur a year earlier. Athletic director Tom O'Connor wants to keep his basketball coach with the ACC pedigree happy. As Mason's Final Four appearance recedes further, a successful hoops-centric league looks that much more attractive to a school that doesn't play football.

Elon and the College of Charleston aren't seamless substitutes for VCU and Mason and ODU. They may never adequately replace their predecessors.

Given the present landscape, keeping together a disparate group of schools that stretch from Boston to Charleston, S.C., might be the most one can hope.

Dave Fairbank can be reached at757-247-4637 or by email at dfairbank@dailypress.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/FairbankDP

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