In its 42-year history, the Atlantic Sun has never been able to call itself a football conference.
But thanks to a trio of additions that became official Friday, the league hopes to become not just one of 14 FCS football-playing leagues but the nation’s premier conference at the level.
Along with Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State, Central Arkansas formally joined the Atlantic Sun Conference, departing its current home in the Southland Conference at the end of the academic year and starting as a full A-Sun member July 1. The announcement came in a pre-recorded program on ESPN-Plus featuring Commissioner Ted Gumbart as well as the presidents and athletic directors from the league’s three newest members.
“This is the result of over two years of work,” Gumbart said. “We realized that one of the biggest things that we needed for sustainability and stability was to focus on football. …What we’ve done is build a plan that builds on our Big South partnership in football but also builds on our own aspirations to build a football conference.”
Although the move gives the Bears a chance to take on a new challenge with all 18 of its men’s and women’s varsity programs, UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague emphasized the opportunity to work with the ASUN in establishing football as the conference’s crown jewel.
“We could feel the conference landscape changing and we wanted to make sure we were out in front of it and not be left behind,” Teague said in a virtual press conference. “We are thrilled about starting a new football league and all of the excitement and opportunities that it brings.”
Becoming a part of the ASUN, which will now be comprised of 12 schools — Jacksonville, North Florida, Stetson, Florida Gulf Coast, Kennesaw State, Liberty, North Alabama, Lipscomb and Bellarmine, in addition to Friday’s newly-joined members — means that the Bears will now expand their reach east rather than west.
“The SEC and the Sun Belt are in this same footprint and we felt like that is where football is located,” Teague added. “We wanted to align ourselves in that part of the country.”
Teague also pointed to the fact that UCA will be able to receive attention in several large media markets — Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta, Lexington and parts of Florida — something that Head Football Coach Nathan Brown is already using as part of his recruiting pitch.
Last year’s Bears football roster featured 12 players from Florida but just three from Alabama and none from Georgia, two of the top 10 recruiting hotbeds in the country.
But thorny issues remain on the football front, at least in the near term.
In order to be able to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Football Championship, FCS’ annual 24-team postseason tournament, a league must have at least six teams. Neither the ASUN’s four Florida-based schools nor Lipscomb and Bellarmine play FCS football and Liberty currently competes as an FBS independent.
That leaves just five ASUN football-playing programs — and North Alabama won’t count toward the six this year unless it receives an NCAA waiver, as it completes its transition from Division II to Division I.
As a result, the ASUN is still searching for a potential sixth school to join as an associate member for football this fall. There also remains the possibility that UCA joins Kennesaw State and North Alabama as a Big South associate football member for one season, in order to have access to the league’s automatic bid.
Regardless, Brown is eager for the opportunity to be a part of the ASUN in whatever form or fashion that may take.
“At the end of the day, we’re excited to play whomever,” Brown said. “Whether we’re playing a full ASUN schedule next year or a blended schedule with another conference…all the things that we live by as standards here as a program, we’re representing the ASUN.”
The conference move represents the Bears’ second in the last 15 years. When UCA began its transition from Division II to Division I in July 2006, it left the Gulf South Conference for the Southland — another league that is in the midst of transition with Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Lamar and Abilene Christian all leaving for the Western Athletic Conference in July.
The Bears competed in Division II from 1992 to 2006, and before that, they were NAIA Division I program, winning three national football titles during that span.