George Mason's 'bittersweet' move

George Mason's 'bittersweet' move
March 25, 2013, 3:15 pm
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FAIRFAX -- What's old is new again for George Mason athletics while the long-standing norm is officially no more.

The Patriots formally announced they are becoming the 13th member Atlantic 10 conference effective July 1, meaning in turn they depart from the Colonial Athletic Association, a conference it helped found in the 1980's.

Of course, the foundation of the CAA has cracked recently with previous departures, including VCU last year and Richmond before that. Now George Mason will be joining both of those past rivals in the A-10, a conference that saw all five of its NCAA Tournament men's basketball teams win their opening games.

In order for that to occur, the Patriots are leaving behind a conference it helped birth and later put on the national map by reaching the 2006 Final Four.

"Today is certainly bittersweet," George Mason Athletic Director Tom O'Connor said during the school's press conference Monday afternoon from Mason Hall.

Today's move is also not stunning. The rumors of George Mason joining the A-10 surfaced previously, most notably last year when the conference added VCU and Butler. The gossipy buzz continued when Old Dominion, another historic CAA powerhouse basketball program, announced its departure plans last year along with Georgia State.

"The landscape has changed in collegiate athletics," stated O'Connor, who revealed the school began looking at such possibilities starting at the beginning of this year. "What's exciting about this move is that it brings us back to two rivals that were in the CAA with us, VCU and Richmond. We've participated and competed against GW through the years. That makes it exciting as well."

The CAA put only one team into the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons. This season the Atlantic 10 sent five with LaSalle reaching the round of 16.

"It's a great move for a lot of different reasons," said men's basketball coach Paul Hewitt, who took a break from prepping for Monday's CBI home game against Houston to attend the announcement. "The thing I most excited about is now we have some natural rivalries that will get started up again. From a recruiting standpoint it stands to reason it will help us. Geographically it's a great move. It makes a lot of sense."

Like many conferences across the country, the Atlantic 10 has also undergone change. This past week Butler and Xavier announced plans to join the new basketball-centric version of the Big East. Previously Temple and Charlotte announced plans to leave following the 2012-13 season. Temple is part of the unnamed conference with the Big East football schools and Charlotte moves to Conference USA.

In addition to "Orange Line" rival George Washington and former CAA foes VCU and Richmond, other current A-10 members include LaSalle, Saint Louis, Rhode Island, Fordham, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph's, Dayton, Saint Bonaventure, and Duquesne. VCU, LaSalle and Saint Louis reached the NCAA Tournament this season.

Participating in the announcement via video, George Mason President Angel Cabrera said, "Clearly the fact that the men's basketball teams in the Atlantic 10 have been doing so well, that's just one of the many factors that confirmed our decision."

O'Connor said he informed CAA commissioner and longtime friend Tom Yeager about the school's plans Sunday night.

"There are sentimental ties," O'Connor said. "That was a difficult [call] to make last night.

The CAA preempted George Mason's official announcement with a teleconference in which Yeager revealed the school would forfeit funds no less than $2.65 million dollars with its departure.

Joining the teleconference fun, Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade said George Mason would become a full financial member upon joining the A-10. Cabrera said, financially speaking, "Within five years this becomes a very positive move for us, if not sooner."

Rather than go through the entire 2013-14 school year ineligible for conference postseason as per current CAA bylaws, George Mason bolted now. As a result, seven spring sports are now ineligible for 2013 CAA championships:  baseball, men’s golf, women’s lacrosse, women’s rowing, softball and men’s and women’s tennis.

Yeager shepherded the CAA through a mass exodus in 2000 when three schools including Richmond left, leaving only six remaining schools. He offered no specifics on any immediate or future expansion for the CAA, but said "a number of plans that have been in development and progressing."

A conference call with the CAA school president's is scheduled for Monday afternoon noted Yeager, who stated that the league could stick with nine teams. College of Charleston will join the CAA on July 1.

Of course, nobody when this financial game of conference musical chairs will end.

"It's the world we live in," Yeager said. "I'm glad I'm 62 instead of 42...However we react is going to impact somebody else...I don't think any of us think this is a highlight of our career experiences by any stretch.

As for whether a person, an entity, anyone could step in and stop the constant switching and poaching, Yeager said, "There is nobody that can do that. I think we'd all like to think it's finished. It's isn't."