Liberty was looking for stability with a full conference affiliation for its non-football sports.
The Big South Conference, the university’s Division I home since 1991, could only offer associate membership after Liberty football left the conference to play in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision as an independent.
The Atlantic Sun Conference, which does not sponsor football, extended a full-membership invitation that was too good for Liberty to pass up.
Liberty announced Thursday it had accepted the A-Sun’s conference invitation and will become a full member July 1 with its non-football sports moving to the conference.
Those 17 sports do not include football, field hockey and women’s swimming & diving.
“I think Liberty is a much better fit with these schools academically, athletically, financially,” Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said of the move to the A-Sun.
Liberty’s other two varsity sports, field hockey and swimming, are members of the Big East Conference and Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, respectively.
Liberty becomes the ninth member of the A-Sun for the 2018-19 athletic season, joining New Jersey Institute of Technology, Lipscomb, Kennesaw State, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, North Florida and Stetson.
The ninth member, North Alabama, is completing its athletic season as a member of Division II’s Gulf South Conference and then will begin the transition to Division I. The Lions are slated to join the A-Sun for the upcoming athletic season but will not be eligible for postseason play during its four-year transitional period into Division I.
“The biggest factors were the academic prestige of the A-Sun members, the competitive level of the conference, the markets that they’re in, and the recruiting footprint,” Liberty athletic director Ian McCaw said of the move. “Those are the primary drivers.”
The decision to change conferences comes nearly eight months after the Big South’s Council of Chief Executive Officers approved Liberty’s waiver to remain in the conference as an associate member on Sept. 22, 2017.
Liberty submitted a waiver to remain in the Big South on Feb. 16, 2017, after receiving approval from the NCAA to move its football program to the FBS as an independent without a conference affiliation.
Under the terms of the waiver with the Big South, the Flames would have withdrawn from the conference as a full member effective June 30, 2019, and then been labeled an associate member beginning in the 2019-20 season with 17 of the university’s athletic programs competing in the conference.
The A-Sun extended its conference invitation to Liberty three weeks ago, and the university reached out to the Big South to inquire about its standing as an associate member. The Big South would be unable to give Liberty a full membership and maintained it would have to become an associate member, which prompted Falwell to accept the A-Sun’s invitation.
The Big South issued a statement from Commissioner Kyle Kallander that read, in part, “maintaining Liberty’s [future] associate membership status remained in the best interest of the conference.”
“It’s really not fair for us to ask them to let a school remain in violation of their bylaws indefinitely,” Falwell said. “It was all completely understood on their side. There were no hard feelings whatsoever. We’ve had a good relationship for years.”
McCaw said Liberty had to pay an exit fee from the Big South and an entry fee into the A-Sun but declined to release the exact amounts.
North Florida athletic director Lee Moon helped spearhead the discussion of adding Liberty to the conference. The A-Sun presidents failed to reach a unanimous decision last year on conference invitation to Liberty, but the mood changed during the past athletic season.
The A-Sun held its 2016-17 indoor track & field championships at Liberty’s two-year-old facility that cost $30 million to build, and it left a good impression on the A-Sun presidents and athletic directors, he said.
“I think it’s just exposure. When you do your due diligence to evaluate a school, it’s really a short snapshot,” Moon said. “To have the facility here and have the meet here, it gave people an opportunity to spend more time here, to really get a feel for the culture of the university. I think that was a positive impact.”
Liberty is in the process of becoming Title IX compliant by evaluating women’s sports that can be added following the addition of 22 scholarships for the football program’s move to the FBS.
The most inquired about sport, women’s golf, is sponsored by both the Big South and A-Sun, while beach volleyball — a club sport at Liberty — is sponsored at the varsity level in the A-Sun.
Liberty has the facilities to host both sports if they are added in the future.
“We firmly believe it’s a step,” A-Sun Commissioner Ted Gumbart said. “I think that there’s more growth ahead, whether it’s just simply another school or whether it’s another sport or whether it’s something new in our network relationship or something new that we do for student-athletes.”
Gumbart added the conference indoor track & field championships will likely return to Liberty following last season’s successful event.
McCaw said Liberty has begun scheduling the conference and non-conference slates for the upcoming season in the 17 sports, and he expects the upcoming season’s budget to reflect the added travel to Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and New Jersey.
The Big South’s geographical footprint is in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“I do think we’ve got a geographic arm that stretches a little bit longer than some because of our mission,” Liberty men’s basketball coach Ritchie McKay said.
Liberty’s departure leaves the Big South with 11 members. The conference recently expanded to 12 teams this past November with the additions of Hampton and USC Upstate from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and A-Sun, respectively.