COLLEGE REPORT

America East Conference quietly mulls possible expansion

Posted June 27, 2012, at 12:18 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — America East Conference presidents and athletic directors met recently in Maryland to talk about key issues facing the conference.

The topic that dominated the discussion at the league’s annual meetings was membership.

With Boston University having announced its intention to leave the conference after the 2012-13 academic year, and leagues nationwide experiencing frequent membership fluctuations, America East administrators are concerned.

“Conference membership is front and center at every conference meeting that we are in and for every conference that competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, with the exception of the Ivy League,” said athletics director Steve Abbott of University of Maine, which also belongs to the Hockey East Association and the Colonial Athletic Association (football).

“Every meeting, it is discussed. We live in a very tumultuous era,” Abbott said. “College athletics has never experienced anything like this, where longstanding relationships are not holding these conferences together.”

The leadership of the nine-member America East, which includes New England schools UMaine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Hartford, realizes it must be proactive to remain strong and competitive.

The America East Board of Presidents has talked privately about conference realignment and expansion, and remains committed to doing what is in the league’s best interest.

“While rumors and speculation regarding conference membership continue to swirl, these conversations have been and will continue to remain confidential among our conference leadership,” America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said in a press release.

“Our presidents are engaged on these matters and understand the fluid dynamic that exists in today’s landscape. They are focused on the future of this league and are committed to dialogue and activity that will advance the conference,” she added.

Abbott said America East, although a mid-major Division I conference, is still affected by the happenings in the power conferences, where big money has led to many changes. The motivation is different for America East, which wants to foster stable, lasting bonds with like-minded institutions that want to balance college athletics with strong educational values.

“We’re not picking conference affiliation based on television contracts and financial gain,” Abbott said.

“I really hope that over the course of the next year we’re able to settle in at a reasonable size for our conference and find (other) schools that are committed to a longer-term relationship.”

Speaking for UMaine, Abbott said expanding would be a positive step, especially with the perceived instability of many schools’ conference affiliations.

“It would stabilize the league, which is what all conferences are doing, but the other reason is so that we have a quality and a full conference schedule for our teams to play,” Abbott said. “It’s not just basketball. We want to have meaningful conference competition for all our sports.”

He believes the current climate of fluctuation might open the door for America East to attract more outstanding schools.

“When you look at the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine, there are many Division I institutions and many of those are unaffiliated or playing in conferences where there is some volatility in membership,” Abbott said.

America East relaxes guidelines

The leadership of America East made a number of athletic policy changes during its annual league meetings.

In addition to revamping the baseball schedule to a 10-week, 30-game arrangement, America East voted to eliminate what it deemed excessive scheduling standards for both men’s and women’s basketball.

That means schools will have fewer limitations in terms of how many sub-Division I opponents (four) it may play or have to choose opponents based on their Rating Percentage, or RPI.

America East had implemented tougher standards in the hope of raising the league’s RPI, the measurement used by the NCAA for ranking and choosing tournament participants.

During the last seven seasons, America East had an average RPI of 24.4 (out of 32) in men’s basketball and 18.4 in women’s basketball.

The men were ranked as high as 16th at the end of the 2008-09 season, but have since been ranked 24th, 28th and 29th in the last three years.

Among the AE women, who were ninth in the RPI in 2005-06, they have gone from No. 14 in 2010 to 29th in 2011 and 18th last season.

“It hasn’t had the desired results,” Abbott said of what he called America East’s tortured history of scheduling standards in recent years.

Abbott said reverting to the basic NCAA scheduling rules, which is the trend nationwide, should open the door for easier scheduling by AE coaches and be less of a headache for administrators.

“One of the primary considerations is trying to get some home games for our teams,” said Abbott, who admitted UMaine is among the schools that has difficulty getting teams to play in Orono.

“The consistent theme is, we’ve tried to make things less bureaucratic at the conference level to give the schools some flexibility on these minor issues so that the schools can make their own decisions and so that we don’t waste conference resources trying to track and enforce these minor rules,” Abbott said.

Abbott chosen for AE post

Abbott has been elected as the chair of the America East Conference Athletic Directors Council for 2012-13.

The group includes the eight league ADs, a representative of the commissioner and a member of the championships committee.

“The Athletic Directors Council is the [athletics] policymaking body for the conference,” Abbott said. “It gathers all the data from the specific sports and deals with all the issues involving the competition.”

Abbott takes over for Lee McElroy of the University at Albany, who held the post during 2011-12. He may call council meetings, preside over them and will serve on the league’s executive and coordinating committees.

“I am excited about it, because it gives me an opportunity to become more deeply involved with the other schools in the conference and better understand what their programs are doing,” Abbott said. “We’ll get ideas that will help us here at Maine and help the entire league.”

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