It’s no longer a surprise, but it is for real.
After seven years, Old Dominion plans to leave Conference USA. The Monarchs will officially join the Sun Belt Conference, likely in 2023, the school announced Wednesday.
ODU will make the move from C-USA along with Southern Miss and Marshall. James Madison is expected to join the Sun Belt from the Colonial Athletic Association, making the jump from FCS to FBS after state approval to do so.
“Joining the Sun Belt Conference is a game-changer for Old Dominion University and our athletic program,” ODU President Brian O. Hemphill said in a statement. “We are excited about the expanded opportunities and limitless possibilities now and well into the future.”
The moves leave previously bulging C-USA with a membership shortage. Alabama Birmingham, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice and UT San Antonio announced their intentions to leave the league, joining the evolving American Athletic Conference, last week.
This week’s departures leave Conference USA with just five football-playing members.
“C-USA has proven to be an excellent home for ODU athletics during our transition from FCS to FBS,” ODU athletic director Wood Selig said, “and we thank the C-USA membership and leadership for such an outstanding partnership, the chance to enhance the overall athletic experience for the student-athletes, fans and alumni of ODU in the SBC with regional rivalries. (It) represents the perfect opportunity for the continued growth and evolution of ODU athletic programs in our pursuit of national prominence.”
It will cost ODU about a $3 million exit fee to leave C-USA. It will cost about $2 million to join the Sun Belt, which has a more lucrative TV deal than C-USA.
The Sun Belt’s deal with ESPN guarantees that every football and men’s and women’s basketball game will be broadcast on one of the network’s platforms. Those platforms will also broadcast a total of 500 events across all sports each year.
The Sun Belt East Division in football includes Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State, Troy, Georgia State and Georgia Southern. The West Division is made up of Louisiana, Texas State, South Alabama, Louisiana Monroe and Arkansas State.
The league is a geographical far cry from C-USA, which included Texas El Paso and two Florida schools. ODU fully joined that league in 2014 after moving from the FCS level.
“This move will allow Southern Miss student-athletes to compete in what is fast becoming the best Group of Five conference in the country and will provide greater visibility for the university’s championship athletics programs,” Southern Miss president Rodney Bennett said in a statement. “The Sun Belt’s geographic footprint will create new regional rivalries.”
Asked about the possible affiliation change this week, Monarchs football coach Ricky Rahne expressed confidence in ODU president Brian O. Hemphill and AD Wood Selig.
“They’ve got a great plan and they’re going to execute it,” Rahne said. “I’m here to coach football, no matter who the opponent is. Conference, non-conference, we’re going to play that game. I tuned it out, and our players have tuned it out. They haven’t asked me one question about it, even in passing.”
Since its move to FBS in 2001, the Sun Belt has established itself as a leader, earning national acclaim. The 2020 football season, however, was a breakout year:
• The SBC accumulated an FBS-leading 21 non-conference wins in 2020, including a 3-0 record against Big 12 opponents.
• In 2020, two teams (Coastal Carolina and Louisiana) finished in the final Top 25 AP Poll (CCU No. 14, Louisiana No. 15), coaches poll (CCU No. 14, Louisiana No. 16) and College Football Playoff Rankings (CCU No. 12, Louisiana No. 19) for the first time in conference history.
• The SBC was 6-3 against C-USA teams in 2020, including 3-0 in bowl games, and is 4-1 against C-USA teams this season.
Over the course of the past five football seasons, the conference has posted an FBS-leading .692 winning percentage in bowl games. The Sun Belt is 18-8 in bowl appearances over this five-year stretch. The SBC has tie-ins with five bowl games, including the Cure Bowl (Orlando, Florida), Lending Tree Bowl (Mobile, Alabama), R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (New Orleans), Myrtle Beach Bowl (Conway, South Carolina) and the Camellia Bowl (Montgomery, Alabama).
In addition to the conference’s accomplishments on the football field in 2020, the league boasted a 135% increase in TV viewership, with seven of the conference’s games surpassing 1 million viewers. The Sun Belt Conference has a long-term TV deal with ESPN that runs through the 2030-31 season.
ODU will join the Sun Belt in all sports the conference offers, including football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s soccer and volleyball. ODU currently competes and plans to remain in the Big East for field hockey. The rowing and lacrosse programs are currently in the AAC.
Before a transitional year in C-USA in 2013, ODU had been a member of the Colonial Athletic Association since 1992, winning 51 conference crowns, led by 17 straight women’s basketball titles from 1992 to 2009, 15 crowns in field hockey and six men’s basketball championships.
ODU was a member of the Sun Belt Conference from 1982-1991 and enjoyed success in a wide range of sports.
The men’s basketball team won Sun Belt regular-season titles in 1983 and 1986 and went to the NCAA tournament three times and the NIT three more during its nine seasons in the Sun Belt.
The ODU women’s basketball squad won five Sun Belt titles and went to eight NCAA Tournaments. The 1984-85 team, coached by Marianne Stanley, won the NCAA Tournament, the last of ODU’s three national titles.
“We are thrilled to welcome Old Dominion University to the Sun Belt,” commissioner Keith Gill said. “ODU brings a host of strengths to our conference. They are competitive across all of their sports, have a strong brand and are supported by a great fan base.”
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Old Dominion Division I conference history
1982-91 Sun Belt
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