Sweeping changes are coming to the Sun Belt.
As soon as next spring, a new commissioner will replace outgoing Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson, whose contractual term with the Sun Belt concludes next summer. As soon 2020, the Sun Belt expects to be affiliated with a new bowl game.
Benson, 66, who was named the Sun Belt’s fifth commissioner in 2012, sat down for an exclusive interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this week, where the commissioner discussed many wide-ranging alterations coming for the Sun Belt.
Of the topics discussed: Benson’s involvement with the changing of commissioners, plans for the Sun Belt’s inaugural football championship game and the conference’s expectation to officially relocate one of its five guaranteed bowl game locations to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, beginning in 2020, and more.
The Democrat-Gazette’s full Q&A with Benson is posted below, providing more thorough detail for forthcoming changes to the Sun Belt.
Q: Now in your final year as commissioner of the Sun Belt, do you have a status update on what’s next for you and the state of the Sun Belt?
“Retirement’s a little not necessarily the best way to describe what I’m doing. I came to the Sun Belt at age 60, was planning to work for 5 to 7 more years and set some goals for the Sun Belt when I came here. I think it was 2014, they extended my contract to 2019, so that was five years. Right then, I said OK, now it’s a five-year plan with what we need to do. I started planning expecting that. I got remarried in October 2016. [My wife] lives in Denver. I was going to go back to Denver no matter what. That’s kind of when the decision was made. Then I started checking off the things that needed to be done — specifically with ESPN. I informed ESPN in January of ‘17 that I was planning on departing at the end of 2018-19, and our negotiating window wasn’t going to start until January of 2019. What I suggested to them was, if you want to get this done while I’m still around, let’s do this. So they opened that up and that was the key piece that needed to be done.”
— Note: Under Benson’s direction, the Sun Belt and ESPN agreed to a long-term partnership extension through 2027-28, which was announced earlier in 2018, and grants ESPN exclusive rights of all Sun Belt sports.
Q: The next move for you is moving back to Denver?
“Yeah. I’m commuting right now to Denver. That was the master plan. As far as what my future is, I really don’t know.”
Q: But it’s not retirement?
“I don’t think so. I don’t see myself not working. I don’t know if I’m going to work 75 hours a week. I’m going to be selective and pick and choose something that is meaningful, whether it’s in college sports or something else. I’ll be 67 this December, so health is good, new marriage and all that. It seems like it was the right time. I wasn’t going to retire to New Orleans when I moved down there, I knew I would move back to Denver anyway.
… “As far as this [Sun Belt Conference] football championship game, the focus on that [is coming in] these next couple of months. We have to make sure that that is prepared for, planned for and we’re able to pull it off.”
Q: What complications do you expect when putting together this inaugural SBC Championship Game?
“Well, not knowing what the location is. My staff has already started kind of taking tours of stadiums. They were actually in Jonesboro, [Arkansas], two weeks ago, just looking at the five or six schools that if you had to guess today might be hosting.
— Note: As previously announced, the SBC Championship Game will be hosted at one of the Sun Belt’s 10 campuses. The game will feature the winners of the Sun Belt’s two divisions and will take place at the home site of the divisional champion with the best overall conference winning percentage, the league announced.
Benson, in more detail, on the Sun Belt Football Championship Game and the festivities the league plans to provide:
“Not going to a neutral site does create some last-minute [hurdles], but our staff is going to be prepared. We’re going to want to knock it out of the park. [We want] to create our own pregame atmosphere, which will be similar to ESPN’s [College] GameDay. We will bring in our own stage and we’ll have a two-hour window before the game that is similar to GameDay. We’ll have somebody host it. Coaches from other Sun Belt teams, you know there will be some of that. I was just communicating with my staff right now. I saw the timeout clock on the field [at No. 1 Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium] … and I made a note to my staff. We want to make sure we have one of those clocks for our championship game.
Benson, continuing, on the state of the Sun Belt’s five guaranteed bowl games, including a new, replacement bowl game coming soon:
“So the only thing that really that is still undone is all of our bowl extensions. There’s five currently. We get five, we’re expected to have five. The NCAA puts a limit on each conference in terms of how many contracts they can enter into based on four-year previous history — in terms of how many bowl-eligible teams they’ve had over a four-year period. That number is five. That’s the number we have. There’s probably going to be a new bowl in the mix for us, which means one of our existing bowls probably won’t continue.”
Q: Do you know which one?
“We don’t know yet.”
Q: But you know there will be a change?
“There probably will be some change. The reports, which they haven’t officially finalized or announced, but we’re expecting a new bowl game in Myrtle Beach, [South Carolina], that ESPN will own and it will be affiliated with that game.”
Q: It will be one of the five bowl games guaranteed to feature a Sun Belt representative — the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the Dollar General Bowl, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl, the AutoNation Cure Bowl and the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl — not an additional sixth bowl game?
“It will be one of the five. The NCAA won’t allow us to have six contracts in the works. We expect in the next 30-60 days to have all of those completed.”
Q: When will the substitute bowl game in Myrtle Beach become active?
“Not until 2020. The existing bowls are all in place for 2018 and ‘19. Again, it’s still projected and not finalized.”
Q: Is there a name in place for the new bowl game in Myrtle Beach or a major sponsorship attachment?
“No there isn’t. Right now we just refer to it as the bowl game in Myrtle Beach. They don’t have a title, or at least we don’t know what the title is.”
Benson, on what he would like his tenure and regime to leave behind for the Sun Belt’s next governing officials, including announced twists to the conference championship basketball and baseball tournaments:
“My goal has been to leave behind for the next commissioner all of these contractual arrangements: ESPN, the basketball championship tournament. We’re changing the format for the basketball tournament to do a final four in New Orleans in 2020. The next commissioner’s going to have a new basketball tournament format that’s in place for three years. We’re bringing our [SBC] baseball tournament to Montgomery for a neutral site in 2020. There’s a lot of things that we’ve accomplished just in the last year that really will have all the pieces in place for the new commissioner so he or she isn’t going to have to come in and manage anything major. Membership is stable. There’s not that.
“People ask me now, ‘What will the agenda for the new commissioner be?’ The answer is he or she will be able to take all of the assets of the Sun Belt that are already in place and established and really take them to the next level. I think the job will attract. There’s a much bigger pool of candidates than six years ago when I got the job. It’s clearly a much better job, a much more recognized job and a much more prestigious job than six years ago only because the Sun Belt has established and put itself in a more-highly regarded conference than it was in 2012. That’s not because of what Karl Benson has done. It’s because of what Arkansas State, Troy, [University of Louisiana-Lafayette] or any of the other schools that have been a member of the Sun Belt or have come in — the Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina, which brings a baseball program and all of that — I think there will be some real interest in the job. I think there will be a number of associate commissioners from Power Five conferences that will look at this job as a very attractive job. I’m leaving it at a good time and I’m leaving it in good shape.”
Q: Has the process of naming your successor begun?
“No. They’ve retained a firm, a search firm called Parker [Executive Search] and it’s out of Atlanta. I know that in early October, there’s a meeting scheduled with the search firm and Sun Belt presidents and chancellors to establish a timeline that they’ll use. My guess is that they’ll have somebody hired early next spring. Maybe in time for … all the various spring meetings that occur nationally and conference-wide. The new commissioner would be in place for that.”
Q: Do you expect to be involved with the selection of the Sun Belt’s next commissioner?
“Nope. I will be a bystander. If asked for thoughts or to include any insight, I would be more than happy to. I will not be selecting my successor. Again, I’m sure it’s more than likely I will know who my successor is going to be. It’s such a small circle of candidates that are going to come from either another conference or school. It might be a television executive. It might be somebody who’s currently an executive director of a bowl game. I would be surprised if I didn’t know who’s going to be the next commissioner of the Sun Belt.”