BOONE When it finally came down to it, Appalachian State felt like it was time to leave.
The Mountaineers, one of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision’s dominant football programs, are moving up a level to the Football Bowl Subdivision’s Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
“We reached a point where we had an opportunity and either you take it or you put it on the shelf and stop talking about it,” athletics director Charlie Cobb said of the school’s decision at a news conference Wednesday.
The Mountaineers will join the Sun Belt on July 1, 2014, along with fellow Southern Conference member Georgia Southern, which was also announced as a new member Wednesday.
Appalachian State’s decision – which has been in the works since 2011 when a school feasibility committee recommended the move – means the school is leaving the Carolinas-centric Southern Conference, where it has been a member since 1971.
The Sun Belt has schools in Arkansas (Arkansas State, Arkansas-Little Rock), Georgia (Georgia State, Georgia Southern), Alabama (South Alabama, Troy), Texas (Texas State, Texas-Arlington), Louisiana (Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe) and Kentucky (Western Kentucky).
Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said two more schools – reportedly New Mexico State and Idaho – are likely to also be added as football-only members this week. . The new additions offset the losses of four schools that are leaving for Conference USA: Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas.
“I will miss some of the relations we had with (Southern Conference) schools,” Appalachian State Chancellor Ken Peacock said. “We learned from them. It’s just time to move on.”
The Mountaineers certainly have accomplished everything there is in Southern Conference football and the FCS. Appalachian State has won 12 Southern Conference football championships, including at least a share of seven of the past eight. The Mountaineers won three consecutive FCS titles from 2005 through 2007 and upset Michigan in 2007.
The move to the Sun Belt includes all Appalachian State sports, except for men’s soccer, wrestling and field hockey, which aren’t sponsored by the Sun Belt. The soccer and wrestling teams will remain in the Southern Conference and field hockey will stay in the NorPac Conference.
The football team will spend the next two seasons reclassifying to FBS, remaining in the Southern Conference in 2013 (although it won’t be eligible for the league title or the FCS playoffs). In 2014, Appalachian State will play a full Sun Belt schedule, but won’t be bowl eligible until 2015.
The change will be costly for the Mountaineers, whose athletic department budget is now $16 million. Cobb said it will increase to about $20 million in the Sun Belt, with the extra funds coming from conference revenue sharing, increased ticket sales and fund raising, some debt refinancing and modest student-fee increases over time.
Much of the money will be spent on adding 22 scholarships for the football team and a corresponding number for women’s teams to comply with federal Title IX requirements.
Appalachian State has a $600,000 exit fee from the Southern Conference and a $1 million entry fee to the Sun Belt.
Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14