NC A&T jumps conferences again, joins Colonial

The Aggies moved from the MEAC to the Big South this season

(Photo courtesy of NC A&T)

After spending a half-century as a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league it helped start in 1970, NC A&T is moving to its second new affiliation in as many years.

On Friday, the Historically Black University announced that it plans to leave the Big South to become a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. The move was approved by a unanimous vote of A&T’s Board of Trustees.

“This is indeed the right decision for our university and our student-athletes,” chancellor Dr. Harold L. Martin said in a video presentation to the board before its vote.

The Aggies will begin competition in the CAA in all sports except football and bowling next fall. Football will delay its entry until the 2023 season so that the Big South can maintain its automatic qualifier status for the FCS playoffs while it attempts to find replacement members.

Conferences must have at least six teams to be an automatic qualifier. With Hampton and Monmouth also leaving for the CAA, the Big South will have only five football-playing members.

A&T’s decision to stay an extra year was praised by Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander.

“We want to express our particular appreciation to North Carolina A&T State University for the professional manner in which it is handling its transition by committing to Big South football for the 2022 season,” he said in a statement.

“While losing members anytime is disappointing, we understand these are institutional business decisions that aren’t necessarily driven by athletics.  The Big South Conference is a strong and stable league that will continue to provide opportunities for national athletics success for its student-athletes and teams.”

Among its remaining members are in-state schools Campbell and Gardner-Webb. The Big South and Ohio Valley Conference announced Monday they would combine their football memberships starting in 2023.

The addition of A&T, Hampton and Monmouth will expand the CAA’s football membership to 14.

“The Aggies fit perfectly into the framework of the conference’s vision that calls for our membership to work together to advance nationally competitive athletic programs — coupled with outstanding academic programs — that empower student-athletes as whole persons to strive at the highest level in every aspect of their lives,” CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said.

“The CAA is excited to add a second HBCU to its membership and going forward the conference will continue to be focused on making decisions that ensures its membership a competitive and sustainable model.”

Not only does the new affiliation provide the Aggies with exposure in the major media markets of Boston (Northeastern) and Philadelphia (Drexel), it also offers reduced travel expenses overall.

A&T will play as part of a Southern Division with Elon, Hampton, William & Mary and football-only members Richmond and Towson, all of which are located within a 5½-hour drive of Greensboro. UNC Wilmington is also a league member in all sports besides football.

The rest of the full-time CAA lineup includes College of Charleston, Delaware, Drexel, Hofstra and Northeastern, Monmouth, Northeastern, Stony Brook and Towson, along with associate (football) members Albany, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Villanova.

According to a statement issued by A&T, the process that led to the conference change began last November when it was issued an invitation to join CAA, which was looking to bolster its membership after the departure of James Madison to the Sun Belt.

University officials conducted a two-month evaluation that included “an exhaustive compilation of data; interviews with students, athletic staff; alumni, boosters and hall of fame members; and additional fact finding” before deciding to make the move.

When the Aggies left the MEAC for the Big South in February 2020, Martin cited finances and an upgraded level of competition as the primary factors. Athletic director Earl Hilton, in his presentation to the Board of Trustees, said that the CAA offers an even better fit academically and athletically.

A&T is currently classified as an R2 doctoral research university by the Carnegie Foundation, with aspirations of being upgraded to R1 status thanks to the recent opening of the $100 million Harold L. Martin Engineering Research and Innovation Complex.

It will join six other R1 or R2 institutions in the CAA. There are no other R1 or R2 members in the Big South.

“We are pleased to be joining a conference of similarly focused institutions,” board chairperson Hilda Pinnix-Ragland said in the statement.

A&T dominated the MEAC in football, winning 11 conference championships with five FCS playoff appearances. The Aggies also had four Celebration Bowl wins from 2015-19. It went 5-6 in its only Big South season in 2021.

The men’s basketball team has reached the NCAA Tournament 10 times, while the women’s basketball team has made five tournament trips, including one last season.

“We come from a tradition of exceptional athletic and academic achievement, and absolutely see the CAA as a new and prominent stage on which to continue that tradition,” Hilton said. “The case to join was clear and persuasive.”