Monday, September 17, 2018
Colleges

SEC expansion creates problems for lower profile sports

When Mary Wise first heard the SEC was considering expansion, the longtime Florida volleyball coach was secretly hoping only one team would be added. After years of playing with an uneven number of teams because Vanderbilt doesn't have volleyball, she thought it would finally ease some travel and scheduling concerns for league games.

When the SEC decided to add Missouri and Texas A&M, league coaches who expressed approval because of the quality of teams joining are now dealing with the reality of what it all means.

While the majority of the national spotlight on SEC expansion has centered on football — the money-making entity of the league — what has gone largely unnoticed is the hardship it places on other sports. Missouri's wrestling program is now without a home because it's not a sanctioned sport in the SEC. And life will be much more difficult in sports where the athletes aren't transported by charter planes and whisked through the city with a police escort.

"The one challenge of Texas A&M and Missouri is that neither place is easy to get to," Florida soccer coach Becky Burleigh said. "So it's going to definitely cause some fatigue in Sunday matches when you're spending the entire day traveling on Saturday as opposed to just a couple of hours."

Previously teams relied on "traditional travel partners." For instance, Florida would schedule Mississippi and Mississippi State together — fly to Mississippi for a Friday game, drive to Mississippi State for a Sunday game then fly home. Not anymore. More flights, more potential travel problems.

"In the first year, we're playing everyone and the challenge of that is you're playing a 13-game, straight-up, two games every weekend schedule with no break, which is a pretty grueling stretch. It may be the survival of the fittest."

Scheduling has been so complicated the league has set only the 2012 season in most sports while it seeks solutions.

The Gators will open the volleyball season at Arkansas and at Kentucky. In mid October, it will face Alabama on a Friday then the Aggies on Sunday.

"The downside is just logistics," Wise said. "We play a 20-match schedule with no travel partners because there's not enough weekends to have travel partners. It is not going to be easy for any school playing volleyball with this schedule. I think what it's going to do is force all schools to really look at how you get your team from one point to the other."

Most sports outside of football and basketball fly commercial and often bus to other locations to complete road trips.

"That's no longer the world we live in," Wise said. "The schedule was done randomly, 20 matches, regardless of geography. It's brutal."

For programs such as Florida, where scheduling high-quality nonconference opponents is par for the course, expansion complicates things even more.

The Missouri wrestling team is dealing with its own hardships. Because wrestling is not an SEC sport, the reigning Big 12 champion must find other options to continue competing. For now, Missouri is technically independent. The Big 12 schools have agreed to allow Missouri to continue to compete against its schools, so the Tigers' conference schedule for next season remains intact. But postseason is another story. And the way wrestling is structured, postseason is key for advancement to the NCAA Tournament.

Steve Keers, assistant director of media communications for wrestling, said Missouri is in talks with the Western Wrestling Conference about a potential affiliation that will allow it to compete with those schools in the postseason tournament. The National Wrestling Coaches Association, of which Tigers coach Brian Smith is president, will meet in Fort Lauderdale the first week of August where Missouri hopes to finalize its plans for the program.

For women's basketball, coaches voted to remain with a 16-game league schedule using a single round robin, with one permanent and two random opponents.

"They (coaches) thought that for postseason play, 16 games gave them the opportunity to have a competitive conference schedule and then for them to go out and schedule appropriately with their nonconference to get them ready for postseason play," SEC assistant commissioner Leslie Claybrook said.

But for all the problems expansion has created, league coaches insist the benefits will far outweigh the struggles. Florida track and field coach Mike Holloway, whose men's team won the 2012 indoor and outdoor national championships, said adding Texas A&M's storied program makes "the best conference in the nation just that much tougher."

And Burleigh, who played Texas A&M and Missouri this past season, said the new teams will help raise the national profile.

"Both A&M and Missouri are perennially good soccer teams so from our standpoint it's a good addition to the league in terms of competitiveness," she said. "We're fighting the ACC, which is our neighbor and they are clearly the top league, so to add two more quality teams, I think that helps."

For Wise and the league's volleyball coaches, the bonus is twofold: better teams, more opportunities to find great athletes.

"The piece that overrides the nightmare travel schedule is the quality of volleyball not only played at Texas A&M and Missouri, two storied programs, but the recruiting base from which they reside," Wise said. "Texas is a state where their participation numbers in volleyball is off the charts. It is such a popular sport in that state with so many terrific athletes.

"And the entire state of Missouri has for years had high-quality, top volleyball, but we never had any success recruiting that area. Texas, we have had some. We hope it will get us in the door. And both come out of the Big 12 that highly values volleyball.

"So when I look at the travel schedule, I try to think of those things."

Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Read the full series at sports.tampabay.com.

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