App State officially joins Sun Belt
by Steve Behr Sports Editor
Tuesday, July 1, 2014, has been circled on the calendar of the Appalachian State athletic department for a long time.
On Tuesday, the Mountaineers officially joined the Sun Belt Conference. A whole slate of activities were held to celebrate the event, including an appearance on Wake Up Watauga, a reception at the Jones House and a kickoff for kids to join the Junior Mountaineer Kids Club.
Appalachian State left the Southern Conference for the Sun Belt, which offers Football Bowl Subdivision football. The Mountaineers had been members of the SoCon since 1971.
Athletic director Charlie Cobb relayed a story about the move to the FBS, which used to be called Division I-A football, involving former App State Chancellor Kenneth Peacock and the move to the higher echelon of football.
"Several years ago when the conversations started about feasibility of it, I remember nine years ago, I was walking around the day before I started as athletic director and I had a couple of questions for Ken," Cobb told the crowd of about 100 at the Appalachian Athletic Center on Wake Up Watauga. "One of those questions coming into this job was about playing 1-A football. He said he wanted his new athletic director to come in, get your feet settled, and then let's answer that question in due time. I think nine years later, with all the success the other programs have had, it's due time."
Appalachian State is not the only team to join the Sun Belt Tuesday. SoCon rival Georgia Southern also joins as a all-sport member, while Idaho and New Mexico State join as football-only members.
Appalachian State started the final process of joining the league in 2010 by forming a feasibility committee to evaluate if a move to the FBS was possible. The Appalachian State board of trustees approved the committee's recommendation to make the move into the FBS in Sept. 2011.
The Sun Belt offered Appalachian State a bid into the conference on March 27, 2013.
Associate commissioner John McElwain said Appalachian State had plenty to offer the Sun Belt Conference, including name recognition and outstanding facilities. The Mountaineers' 34-32 win over Michigan in 2007 helps with the name recognition, but McElwain said Appalachian State has more to offer than just a big upset victory.
"Obviously, the history and tradition of the football program is just the beginning of the story," McElwain said. "Too often, people recognize Appalachian as the team that beat Michigan, and that can't be further from the truth. There are so many stories of success here than just football and I know they are going to be successful in a number of our sports."
McElwain also said App State's academic programs will be on par with the rest of the Sun Belt.
"It will be one of the prestigious schools here," he said. "Facilities wise, it definitely matches up, not just (the Appalachian Athletic Center), but the other facilities as well. It's a great place to visit and I think people are really going to enjoy coming here."
The Sun Belt, founded in 1976, sponsors 21 sports. It currently has 11 football-playing members, including Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy, Idaho and New Mexico State.
Arkansas-Little Rock and Texas Arlington are members of the conference, but do not play football. Hartwick, Howard and New Jersey Institute of Technology are members of other conferences, but play men's soccer in the Sun Belt.
Appalachian State has 20 varsity sports. The wrestling team will still compete in the SoCon since it is not offered in the Sun Belt. The field hockey team will compete in the NorPac for the same reason.
But the big reason for Appalachian State's shift into a new conference was jumping to the FBS from the SoCon, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision.
"The kids are excited," Cobb said. "Ultimately, as fans and as people, we want to talk about playing games and playing certain teams and should we be in the Sun Belt or not. It really boils down to how the coaches and the kids feel because they are the ones who are out playing."
Appalachian State has three years to pay off the $1 million entry fee that the Sun Belt requires for entry. The Mountaineers' football team will not be eligible to play in a bowl game following the 2014 season, but will be eligible in 2015.
Cobb said the football team has "about 80" of the allotted 85 football scholarships filled. The Mountaineers have to have an average 761/2 scholarships over the 2013-14 seasons.
Cobb said Appalachian State has met that requirement. He added that the football program wants to maintain a balance of scholarships per graduating class to cut down on the risk of a class being shorthanded in any given year.
"We're trying to build it by class, so we're not overloaded," Cobb said.
The move to the Sun Belt comes on the same day that Sheri N. Everts takes over as Appalachian State's chancellor. She replaces Kenneth Peacock, who has been the chancellor at Appalachian State since 2004.
"Today is a celebration about joining the Sun Belt, but it's also about a celebration of Dr. Everts taking over as chancellor. When we were thinking about it last night, it's really a great beginning if you will. Certainly, for us over the next two months, it's about us getting ready for kids coming back to school and getting the kids excited."