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CAA's Yeager energized, optimistic after league meetings

No one can forecast what the Colonial Athletic Association will look like moving forward, but commissioner Tom Yeager came away from the spring meetings far happier than a year ago.

"From the outset, there was just a much better vibe," Yeager said last week as he returned from the meetings in Hilton Head, S.C. "I think everybody was much more positive and focused. It was pretty refreshing, in light of the gloom and doom and disaster we'd been hearing for so long."

This time last year, the CAA dealt with VCU bolting and the impending departures of Old Dominion and Georgia State. ODU and Georgia State officials attended the spring meetings, where they were told that their teams would be ineligible to compete for conference titles on their way out the door, creating some hard feelings within the normally collegial body.

Those departures, along with poor academic performances within the UNC Wilmington and Towson basketball programs, meant that the league's signature event, the men's basketball tournament, would be relegated to a seven-team affair.

Discussions about moving the tournament from its longtime home in Richmond produced some anxiety about the unknown, as well.

CAA football was in precarious position, with an increasingly isolated and dwindling northern tier.

One year later, membership is stabilized, with the College of Charleston joining next season and Elon coming on board as a full member in 2014. The men's basketball tournament will be held in Baltimore for the next three years, and there is attendant buzz about a new locale.

The additions of Stony Brook and Albany for football only buttressed the northern tier, along with Rhode Island's about-face from the Northeast Conference.

Granted, College of Charleston and Elon don't provide equal value for the losses of VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason, in terms of recent track records, tradition and established rivalries. But as a mid-level league that administers FCS-level football, the CAA is forced to be more reactive than proactive.

Talk of the CAA's demise has quieted. Yeager said that realignment, membership and expansion were discussed, but not as urgently as before.

"For us, it's always been about the right mix of institutions, rather than a specific number," he said. "There doesn't need to be a buyer's mentality. We don't feel like we need to do anything dramatic to change the perception that people are bailing out."

Football was the primary topic the first couple of days in Hilton Head, as coaches, athletic directors and league officials addressed concerns and rule changes. Once football was complete and the agenda turned to the conference's all-sports members, Yeager said that the level of enthusiasm ratcheted up a couple of notches.

"Big kudos to the men's basketball coaches," Yeager said.

Instead of the standard, operational presentation for athletic directors and league officials, Yeager said, "They delivered a great report that kind of set the tone for the rest of the meetings. They said, we want to reposition and recommit to achieve the kind of success the league has had. They said, we believe that everything we've accomplished in men's basketball isn't just a function of two or three programs."

William and Mary basketball coach Tony Shaver said the presentation began as fairly standard, "but then we just kind of got to the meat of the matter."

"It was a very positive, upbeat feeling and meeting," Shaver said. "It's a group of coaches who are very confident about the future of our league, and the recognition that it's a new league. There's a great determination to get back to where it has been."

After landing three teams in the NCAA tournament in 2011, which featured VCU's Final Four run, the league had just one team in the field each of the past two years. Last season, the conference Ratings Percentage Index was its lowest in years.

"I don't think there was any one person who was a gang leader of the feeling," Shaver said. "I think we were a little bit tired of hearing about people that are not in our league. Let's take care of what we've got. We've got a good bunch of people and a good bunch of athletes and a strong determination to make it really good."

The formula is in place, Shaver said, for conference programs to excel. It requires administrative and financial commitment, wisely ambitious scheduling, ramped up recruiting, and finally, winning games.

"Our league's changed," Shaver said. "We as coaches talked about every year we lose two or three good seniors and you've got to find a way to win with your current team. I think our league feels that way. We've had some seniors move on, and we feel like with Charleston and eventually Elon coming in, we've got a very good league and we've got to prove it."

Shaver believes that the CAA can be a multi-bid league again.

"I don't think it's going to happen overnight," he said. "Some of the (departed) schools … made serious commitments to basketball and it paid some dividends for them. I think some other schools will do the same thing. Who it will be, and who will separate themselves from the group, I don't know. Time will tell on that. But it's a major commitment in a lot of ways."

Shaver wasn't at William and Mary at the time of the CAA's last major reset, in 2000 after the departures of Richmond, East Carolina and American. But he was an interested observer, as head coach at Hampden-Sydney at the time.

"There was a lot of talk that the CAA was going to die, and this and that," he said. "But it's been a pretty damn good league for the last six or seven years. We've got to recommit and make it happen again."

Yeager has been at the helm for the CAA's entire history, good and bad.

"I'm very energized about the future," he said. "Sure, there are challenges ahead, but we'll do what we've always done and rise to those challenges."

Even with exit and entry fees and NCAA tournament money left on the table by VCU, Old Dominion and Mason, Yeager said that won't create windfalls for remaining members. The revenue distribution formula remains the same, and the league has set aside large sums for various projects and platforms that will increase exposure to all members.

"We're not going to use it to balance the budget or something like that," Yeager said. "We want to use it to reposition ourselves so that we're talking about a third Final Four run — which wouldn't be any more surprising than the first two."

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