HUNTINGTON — One major question within Marshall’s switch to the Sun Belt Conference was answered on Monday by Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill.
During Monday’s press conference introducing Marshall into the league, Gill confirmed the Sun Belt Conference will reinstate men’s soccer as a sponsored sport.
Not only does the Sun Belt look to reinstate the sport, but it could instantly be a powerhouse conference on the national scene, given some of the moves that could occur to strengthen the league.
“When we restart it, with the addition of Marshall and we have some core programs with it, we’re going to be one of the best men’s soccer conferences in the country right off the jump,” Gill said. “We’re really excited about that as well and about the process of restarting men’s soccer, so that will be a lot of fun.”
Marshall interim athletic director Jeff O’Malley said that the status of the national champion men’s soccer program was at the forefront of discussions when speaking on realignment.
“These moves are obviously football and basketball-centric at times, but for us, the men’s soccer program was extremely important to us,” O’Malley said. “I had Coach Grassie informed on this process early on and what the ramifications of each move would be. I took his advice as we were going to get through this process. We felt comfortable with the direction the Sun Belt was going.”
The official landscape of the men’s soccer conference is not yet known, but Gill said the league will file the paperwork necessary to do so in the coming months, which makes sure the league is prepared to add the sport in case the conference shifts come before the 2022-23 academic year, which remains a possibility.
“We’ll probably file the paperwork in February, to be honest with you, just to make sure we’re ahead of the game in that regard, but we’ll be ready to go as soon as all the men’s soccer programs transition in,” Gill said. “The three core members that we have will transition in as well.”
Core members who play as affiliates elsewhere currently include Georgia State and Georgia Southern in the Mid-American Conference and Coastal Carolina in Conference USA.
Those schools will return to the Sun Belt Conference, along with Marshall, Old Dominion and, unofficially, James Madison, whose move could become official as soon as Tuesday.
The addition of James Madison would make six teams, which is required for automatic NCAA Championship qualifications for a conference — the same reason the Sun Belt shut down its league previously.
While that would be enough, it is not likely that expansion would stop there with the Sun Belt’s progressive thinking.
In looking at Conference USA’s landscape, the likely scenario is that C-USA will not have enough teams to sponsor men’s soccer at a level that would receive automatic qualification moving forward.
Currently, Conference USA has nine programs — six member schools and three affiliate schools — playing in what is one of the country’s top conferences.
Of those six member schools, five are slated to leave Conference USA with Charlotte, Florida Atlantic and UAB going to the American Athletic Conference and Marshall and Old Dominion headed to the Sun Belt Conference.
That would leave C-USA with only FIU and the affiliates, which would not be enough for NCAA qualification, thus leaving league members of C-USA looking for a new men’s soccer home.
Given the strength of its new-look conference, the Sun Belt could step in as a new home for those C-USA affiliate members.
Kentucky and South Carolina certainly fit the geographical blueprint of the league while West Virginia, scheduled to leave the Mid-American Conference in to join Conference USA as an affiliate in 2022, could also join the Sun Belt Conference, given the relationship with several league teams.
WVU head coach Dan Stratford and Marshall head coach Chris Grassie are good friends and the Mountaineers have already built relationships with Georgia State and Georgia Southern, who are currently their Mid-American Conference foes. The Mountaineers have also played Kentucky in the non-conference schedule, making it a strong option for WVU’s men’s soccer program.
By getting all of the C-USA affiliates in the Sun Belt, there would be nine teams in the new league with four being NCAA Tournament-caliber programs.
The Sun Belt could make it an even 10 teams by adding UCF, whose program will look for a home once it shifts from the AAC to the Big 12 due to the Big 12 not sponsoring men’s soccer.
FIU, who is currently ranked No. 17 and near the top of Conference USA, is also an option because the Panthers will likely be looking for a men’s soccer home if Conference USA can no longer offer the sport.
During Monday’s press conference, Gill spoke of the Sun Belt getting stronger and the addition of men’s soccer and the potential moves of the league show how progressive the SBC is in becoming a national player.
By adding Marshall, the Sun Belt adds a national champion to its mix, which could help lure others into an attractive situation as men’s soccer resumes.
“Building our brand is a really key part of our strategy and I think Marshall will help us with that with the quality of their sports programs,” Gill said.