About 1,300 miles separates Oglethorpe University, in Atlanta, and Colorado College, in Colorado Springs. The two institutions are located at the farthest reaches of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference , a group of 12 private liberal arts colleges in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“Our students enjoy the travel,” said Jay Gardiner, athletics director at Oglethorpe, who conducts an exit survey every spring of the university's graduating senior athletes. “It’s a great life experience for them. But they tell me that, on a day-to-day basis, the extra-long trips are tough for them, both socially and academically.”
Traveling to Colorado and back can take more than 10 hours for an Oglethorpe team. Also, because nearly all conference matches are scheduled on Friday and Sunday, athletes are most likely to be excused from class late on Thursday and all day Friday to make the trip. And while athletes are not excused from attending classes on the Monday after a weekend trip, Gardiner noted that some chose to sleep in after getting back late the night before.
Such long trips have taken their toll on Oglethorpe’s athletes -- and its budget. About 60 percent, or some $250,000, of its athletics department’s annual operating budget goes to travel. And with fuel prices rising and major airlines charging additional fees for checked bags and other services, travel costs are sure to rise further.
For all of these reasons, Oglethorpe and six other institutions in the Southeast -- Birmingham-Southern College, in Alabama; Centre College, in Kentucky; Hendrix College, in Arkansas; Millsaps College, in Mississippi; and Rhodes College and University of the South, in Tennessee -- have decided to leave the SCAC  at the end of the 2011-12 season and start their own conference . Berry College, in Georgia, will join them. Their announcement and push for more regionalization comes at a time when a number of big-time athletic conferences in Division I have decided to expand beyond their traditional geographic barriers . Take, for example, Texas Christian University’s decision to join the Big East , which primarily consists of institutions in the Rust Belt.
The SCAC is unlike many Division III conferences in that geography is not a primary determining factor for membership. The SCAC consists of private liberal arts colleges with strong academic backgrounds; as evidenced by its acceptance of institutions in Colorado and Texas in 2006, distance is not much of a barrier. In this way it is similar to another Division III conference, the University Athletic Association , which is colloquially known as the “Egghead Eight” and counts institutions as far-flung as Brandeis University, in Massachusetts; Washington University in St. Louis, in Missouri; and Emory University, in Georgia, among its members.
Gardiner will serve as the interim commissioner of the new conference. Lawrence Schall, Oglethorpe's president and current chair of the SCAC executive committee, will serve as the convener of the new conference’s presidential council.
“The deciding factor for us leaving was the amount of time away from campus and missed class time for our athletes,” Schall said. “Still, we wouldn’t just go to any other conference. It’s very important for us to be with like-minded schools. We’re just lucky to be able to have the best of both worlds -- a conference with schools in the Southeast that have the same set of core principles that we had before with the SCAC. It’s not an easy thing for us to do, since we all had what we considered a good conference already. But there’s no mystery why we’re doing this; we just want to draw a tighter circle around our conference and use our resources in a more efficient way.”
Gardiner estimates that Oglethorpe could save between $85,000 and $100,000 annually on travel expenses. All of its athletics trips will be within a bus ride of campus, and there will be no need to fly to a conference match. He also estimates that the basketball team, for example, will miss 20 percent less class time per year because of the shorter travel schedule.
Brian Chafin, athletics director at Centre, will serve as convener for the new conference’s athletics director council. He said Centre is leaving the SCAC for the same reasons as Oglethorpe.
“It became more of a burden on budgets that could be spent someplace else,” Chafin said. “I mean, Centre College can afford it when some schools may not be able to. But with fuel prices up, we’d rather not feed the airlines more. The savings will go back into the college coffers and can be distributed where it’s needed most. Still, it wasn’t just about costs. It was also about student welfare.”
Chafin estimates that Centre will save about $100,000 annually on travel in the new conference; it currently spends around $600,000 each year. Chafin noted that Centre athletes will not miss any less class time than they currently do; college policy states that they cannot miss more than three Monday/Wednesday/Friday class meetings and two Tuesday/Thursday class meetings per term. Still, he said athletes will spend less time away from campus because of the shorter travel distances, giving them more time for studying and extracurricular activities.
The new conference does not yet have a name, a permanent commissioner, or a headquarters; these will be announced in the coming months.
Dwayne Hanberry, commissioner of the SCAC, noted that there had been talk for the past two years about splitting the league, in its current form, into divisions and playing division-only schedules. Still, the departing members and remaining members of the conference could not agree on such a scheduling change to offset the high travel costs.
“Travel costs were an often discussed topic, but given a conference comprised of 12 schools in nine states and three time zones, there is only so much you can do to manage costs,” Hanberry wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.
Despite the departure of seven members citing high travel costs, Hanberry noted that he is still committed to rebuilding the SCAC into something more than just another regional athletic conference. The remaining five members of the SCAC -- Colorado College, in Colorado, and Austin College, Southwestern and Trinity Universities, and the University of Dallas, all in Texas -- are looking for new members to join their depleted ranks and hope to grow to an 8- or 10-member conference.
“I believe we will continue to seek potential partners who believe in the Division III ideal -- institutions that demand a rigorous academic program for their student-athletes while providing a competitive athletic experience,” Hanberry wrote. “I also believe that our presidents see value in seeking such like-minded institutions and are willing to invest in that experience for their student-athletes. If that means looking at institutions outside of the Texas/Colorado footprint, I believe we will do so. Even in its infancy as the College Athletic Conference in 1962, this conference has always been built on this academic ideal, and not necessarily geographic convenience. The model is not broken; we are simply seeking partners who are willing to make an investment in these principles.”
Colorado College has been willing to make an investment to travel to play what it considers peer institutions, but in one way, it has little choice: it is the only Division III institution in the Mountain Time Zone.
“The closest Division III school to us is 500 miles away,” said Ken Ralph, athletics director. “There are a number of Division II institutions nearby in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, and we play some of them in our non-conference schedule. To be honest, we had an open discussion about what Division II membership would look like for us, but we’re very much a Division III institution, and we’d like to stay that way.”
Unlike Division I and II institutions, Division III institutions do not offer athletic scholarships. Many Division III institutions are small liberal arts colleges like Colorado College, whereas many, though not all, Division II institutions are larger regional institutions.
Ralph believes that if his institution joined Division II, any money it saved in diminished travel expenses -- because most of its competitors would be in-state -- would be lost paying for athletics scholarships. So, although his institution must leave the Mountain Time Zone to play all of its conference games, Ralph said it is committed to its athletics program as it exists in Division III.
“I appreciate the fact that [the institutions leaving the SCAC] are doing what’s in the best interest of their institutions,” Ralph said. “I’m just disappointed with the lack of communication as to the immediacy of this. There were other options.”
Ralph said he favored splitting the conference into divisions to cut down on the number of long-distance trips and thinks that all parties did not try hard enough to come to a solution. Like those at the departing institutions, he said he sees value in playing institutions of similar academic caliber.
“When this conference was formed, oil wasn’t $100 a barrel and airlines didn’t restrict the number of seats,” Ralph said. “The cost of travel has changed dramatically. If the SCAC, as it currently exists, were around 20 years ago, it would be thriving. People would see the value of the different experiences students would have with travel.”