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After defections, Coppin State and UMES sticking with MEAC, but Morgan State remains quiet

North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference recently, but two other Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the state said they are staying put and the conference’s commissioner expressed confidence in the league’s viability.

“I’d like to put their concerns at rest simply because we are a vibrant conference with a tremendous history and an even brighter future,” Dennis E. Thomas said Tuesday morning. “We are celebrating our 50th anniversary, and we are excited about that because there’s been some truly phenomenal and talented coaches and student-athletes.”

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Coppin State and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore expressed in written statements their intention to remain as member schools in the league.

“Coppin State University and its Athletic Department remain 100% committed to our membership to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference,” the school said Monday.

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“As one of the founding members of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, we are committed to the MEAC and its future,” UMES athletic director Keith Davidson said Tuesday. “The presidents and chancellors of the eight remaining schools in the conference have all expressed their desire to remain and to help make the MEAC stronger than it has ever been. In today’s changing landscape of college athletics, it is important to belong to a conference which is stable, financially viable and has an eye toward the future.”

But Morgan State, the largest of the three HBCUs in Maryland and the only one of the three that sponsors football and men’s and women’s basketball, referred inquiries to the league’s media relations office.

Football Gameplan founder and former University of Louisiana-Lafayette running back Emory Hunt Jr. said he thinks the reshuffling will most impact smaller programs within the league.

“I personally think it affects schools like Coppin and UMES as they don’t have football and seem to be operating on a tight budget athletically,” said Hunt, who has served as an analyst for Morgan State football games and writes for The Athletic, via Twitter. “And it’ll be tough to ask those two to bring back, or start, football. They will have some tough decisions to make moving forward. Hopefully, they can still thrive as a basketball conference if it came down to it.”

Morgan State and UMES were two of seven founding members of the league when it was formed in 1970. In 1979, those two universities and North Carolina Central withdrew, but eventually returned with UMES rejoining in 1981 and Morgan State in 1984. Coppin State became a member in 1985.

At late as 2017, the MEAC boasted 13 member schools. But the first defection occurred when Hampton left to join the Big South Conference for the 2018-19 season. Savannah State then dropped to Division II for the 2019-20 season.

This past February, North Carolina A&T announced it would leave the league for the Big South beginning July 2021. Then last month, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman said they would leave for the Southwestern Athletic Conference. All three universities cited travel expenses and missed class time as reasons for their decisions.

Those moves left the MEAC with only six football-playing members. If Morgan State, Delaware State, Howard, Norfolk State, North Carolina Central or South Carolina State were to join another conference, the league would lose its Division I status with the NCAA unless it could find a replacement in two years. The minimum number of schools required to be eligible for postseason play in men’s and women’s basketball is seven.

Thomas, the league’s commissioner, acknowledged that there were concerns other schools might follow North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman. But ensuing conversations with presidents and other officials of the remaining members fortified his belief there would be no further defections.

“We wished them well,” he said of the three departing colleges. “Obviously, you hate to see them go, but from what we were told, it had more to do with geographical location, travel expenses and student-athletes’ missed class time. So we understand that, and we have an opportunity now to be even better, to re-calibrate and re-engineer a more compact group of members. We are in the same exact footprint when we were founded in 1970. So now we have a group of institutions whose travel expenses are going to be reduced now and same with student-athletes’ missed class time. That is obviously important to everyone. So now we’re back to the future.”

The MEAC received some good news June 30 when Delaware State announced that it would remain with the conference instead of leaving for the Northeast Conference, which had been rumored to be a potential new home for the Hornets.

“You don’t have to expect any changes,” university president Dr. Tony Allen said in a virtual meeting. “We’ve been very thoughtful about this with respect to how we affiliate, what we need from the athletic conference, particularly the MEAC and what our go-forward path is as we move.”

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And on Monday, Howard joined the Northeast Conference as an associate member and will play six sports in that league starting in the 2020-21 season, but will continue to play football and men’s and women’s basketball, among other sports, in the MEAC.

“I think we all are encouraged because they see value,” Thomas said of the decisions made by Delaware State and Howard.

With Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and Savannah State no longer in the league, the southernmost destination for member schools is Orangeburg, South Carolina, home of South Carolina State. Delaware State in Dover is the northernmost institution.

The defections also mean that the conference can elect to eliminate the northern-southern divisions format it had used in sports outside of football and men’s and women’s basketball.

Thomas said the MEAC will continue to try to bolster its ranks by recruiting new members — a plan endorsed by Davidson, the UMES athletic director.

“Since the departure of Hampton University in 2019, the MEAC has had an eye toward increasing membership and has put together criteria for new members,” he said. “We have confidence in the MEAC’s immediate plan for expansion which includes looking at potential new members.”

Thomas emphasized that the league is “not on the verge of being dismantled.”

“We’re solid, and we are a more compact conference now,” he said. “The footprint is smaller now, and I think that bodes well for everyone in terms of travel expenses, student-athletes’ missed class time, rivalries. It’s a paradigm that we can adapt to easier than had we maintained our footprint all the way to Florida. So we have an opportunity now to re-calibrate and re-engineer where we are and be about the business of being the best that we can be in addition to surveying the landscape to determine what institutions are a good fit for the MEAC.”

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