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Hampton president says leaving MEAC ‘is a risk, but it’s not a gamble’

William Harvey’s decision to leave the conference was decades in the making

In a decision heard throughout the historically black college universe, Hampton University announced Thursday that the school would leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and join the Big South Conference in 2018.

The announcement was made in a statement by Hampton University president William Harvey.

In a phone conversation, Harvey, who has been Hampton’s president for 40 years, elaborated on his decision to leave the MEAC. “I have always been very interested in the concept of the student-athlete, which means a focus on academics and top athletics,” Harvey said. “To me this is a very good fit for our own ethos of top academics and top athletics.”

While the official news was announced on Thursday, the decision has been decades in the making. Over the years, Harvey has made no secret of his desire to join a larger, more high-profile conference.

He has spoken with and been rejected by other conferences over the years, but finally the Big South stepped up. “This is kind of a breakthrough,” Harvey said, adding that the announcement is not what most pleases him.

“What does excite me is that the geographic footprint of the Big South means that the travel is less, it means that the student-athletes can spend more time on campus in the classroom than traveling. It means that the expenses will be reduced, and the fact that we have a large alumni footprint in the three states that make up the Big South.”

Hampton has been a MEAC member since 1995.

Hampton is the second historically black college or university (HBCU) at the Division I level not competing in a historically black league. Tennessee State University competes in the Ohio Valley Conference.

With Hampton, the Big South Conference will have four members each in Virginia (Hampton, Liberty, Longwood, Radford), South Carolina (Charleston Southern, Presbyterian College, USC Upstate, Winthrop) and North Carolina (Campbell, Gardner-Webb, High Point, University of North Carolina-Asheville). According to the conference, it will begin exploring different scheduling models and championship formats for the upcoming 2018-19 season.

Harvey said that each of his coaches favored the move to the Big South. “I was the holdout,” he said. “But we thought, and the coaches thought, that this would be a good thing for their programs.”

The coaches are gambling, or hoping, that Hampton’s affiliation with a predominantly white conference will help with the recruitment of talented athletes that HBCUs have been losing to predominantly white schools. The MEAC is ranked 32nd in conference power rankings. The Big South is 21st.

Because HBCUs have been seeded so low during the annual NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, there has been talk among some that HBCUs should have their own postseason tournaments. In football, the champion of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and the MEAC meet in the Celebration Bowl.

“That’s not my orientation,” Harvey said. “The fact of life is that there are some people who feel that white is right and if you’re black, get back. For me, I want to compete against the best, not just the best black schools. I want to compete against the best.”

MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas, a former Hampton athletics director, expressed disappointment but said Hampton’s move was part and parcel of movement in the college sports industry.

“I don’t want to lose any members, but that’s just the landscape in Division I sports conferences and institutions,” Thomas said. “It’s not just at the Power 5 level, or the Autonomous 5 level. It permeates throughout Division I.

“Each institution has to make a decision about the direction they want to go; you can’t pass judgment,” he added. “Institutions make decisions based on what they think is best for them. I might disagree with it, but I have to respect the wishes of our institutions.”

CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, who is a Hampton graduate, said the move makes business sense and alums will have to adjust to a cultural shift.

“For me and maybe some other alumni, it’ll take some time to adjust on the cultural side,” she said. “For 150 years, we’ve affiliated with black colleges. Now we’re going to the Big South, which has an opportunity to diversify its conference, but it will be a different feel and look for us alumni and fans and how we integrate ourselves into the culture and environments of their championships.

“Our students need our conferences. A lot of them want to be in a black conference. Some of them prefer to be in a black conference. Hampton leaving the MEAC may bring a different look of recruiting, it may not. If I want to go to Hampton, am I thinking that I’m going to be in the Big South, or is it that I want to go to Hampton University?”

What are the implications of Hampton’s move to the Big South for HBCU presidents and conference commissioners?

That depends on who you ask.

Thomas said: “First and foremost, I think the implication is that people are constantly looking for what works for them from an academic standpoint, from a geographical standpoint, from an athletic standpoint, from a mission standpoint, to see if they can elevate their institution and their athletic program.”

Harvey said the implication for other HBCUs is simple: “They need to compete, and they cannot rest on the fact that they are all or predominantly black. You have to compete academically. You have to compete athletically. You’ve got to go after all the athletes, which means you get your facilities in great shape, you offer the same kind of packages that the majority [white] institutions offer.”

Harvey rejected the notion that Hampton’s move to the Big South was a gamble. He said Hampton has the facilities, the academic infrastructure and the funds to make the move. “I am a planner and I am a calculator,” Harvey said. “I would not have made this move if I didn’t think that Hampton could afford it.

“There is risk to everything. This is a risk, but it’s not a gamble.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.