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Sun Belt eyes new member

The University of Arkansas-Little Rock is expected to accept an invitation to join the Sun Belt Conference today, a member of the school's board of trustees said Tuesday. "They officially extended us the bid," said W. Sykes Harris, one of the 10 trustees. "I was in a budget meeting with Dr. (James) Young (the school's chancellor) when he got the call from them. We're very excited."

The trustees have scheduled a special meeting to hear Young's recommendation at 6 p.m. EDT. A majority vote is all that's required, and several trustees said acceptance is a foregone conclusion.

"I don't anticipate any objection," Harris said. "I think we're all honored to be asked."

Harris added that Alan Sugg, president of the five schools in the University of Arkansas system, supports UALR's move from the Trans America Athletic Conference to the Sun Belt.

"There will be plenty of questions, I'm sure, but if they're all answered quickly, I'm sure we'll accept the invitation," said another trustee, Sandra Ledbetter. "It's a good move for us."

The Sun Belt currently has eight members, including the University of South Florida. But Old Dominion University is bolting for the Colonial Athletic Association following the 1990-91 school year.

ODU and Western Kentucky were the last to join the Sun Belt, in 1982-83.

A seven-person Sun Belt expansion committee recommended adding UALR on Tuesday afternoon. Designated representatives, one from each school excluding ODU, then voted to extend an invitation and expansion committee chairman Jim Woodward called Young.

Woodward, however, said only that there would be more "discussions with Arkansas-Little Rock during the next couple of days." Neither he nor other Sun Belt officials would confirm that an invitation was extended.

UALR administrators likewise wouldn't comment, other than saying they have been interested in the Sun Belt for a while.

"Our experience with the Trans America Conference has been very good," Bill Walker, assistant to the chancellor at UALR, said of the school's 11-year relationship with the conference.

"But there's been quite a bit of activity in recent years with a number of schools leaving (including Houston-Baptist and the University of Texas-San Antonio). It became increasingly obvious to us that we should be looking too. We've looked at the American South and the Missouri Valley, but the more we looked at it, the fit with the Sun Belt seemed to be the best fit if we were able to work it out."

The Sun Belt expansion committee, which includes USF athletic director Paul Griffin, visited Little Rock, the state's capital and largest city (nearly 475,000), last month.

"A number of schools expressed an interest in joining, but that was the only one we thought potentially had an athletic program and community compatible with the Sun Belt Conference," said Woodward, the chancellor at North Carolina-Charlotte.

He said any new team would have to pay a $50,000 initiation fee and another $110,000 to the Sun Belt's equity fund, matching the other schools' contribution.

Walker said if UALR were to join, it would begin competing in the Sun Belt in as many sports as possible next school year.

The school of 11,400 students has 13 varsity sports, most notably men's basketball. The Trojans have earned post-season berths the past five years (the NCAA Tournament in 1986, 1989 and 1990 and the NIT in 1987 and1988). That's a feat no Sun Belt team can claim.

Men also have programs in baseball, soccer, tennis, cross country, swimming and water polo. There are six women's programs: soccer, volleyball, tennis, swimming, track and cross country. The women currently compete at the NAIA level since the Trans America Conference has no women's championships.

The Sun Belt has championships for both men and women in basketball, cross country, golf and tennis. It also has soccer and baseball and women's volleyball for a total of 11.