Image credit: Kennesaw State celebrates an ASUN Tournament title (Photo courtesy of Kennesaw State)
You can’t accuse the ASUN Conference of failing to turn over every last stone in an effort to raise its profile and shine a light on its member institutions.
It has been aggressive in expansion, adding eight members since 2018. Relatedly, the league is also set to begin playing football for the first time this season and has formed an alliance with the WAC—another conference that has aggressively expanded of late—for the purposes of giving its members access to an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.
Furthermore, the automatic bid awarded through this ASUN-WAC partnership, should it require a tiebreaker between the best team in each conference, could come down to an agreed-upon power ranking calculation done by Warren Nolan, a well-known college sports data wonk, the details of which the conference has made publicly available.
At this point, it’s simply in the ASUN’s DNA to think outside the box, but it was initially born out of trying to take on the realignment headwinds in college sports. Faced with a choice on how to counter that movement, the ASUN chose not to take the easy route and instead embraced something different.
“I would go back to the discussions we had with our President’s Council at least eight years ago, maybe more like 10 now. Realignment was happening at that point, and we talked about whether we should have higher buyouts (for departing institutions). That’s a normal thing for a conference to announce,” said ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart, who has been in the role since 2007 and with the league in some capacity since 1991. “Our presidents said ‘that sounds like handcuffs, which is one way to do it, but why don’t we figure out what we can offer to become attractive and therefore not worry about people wanting to be in our league (and know) that we’ve built something that people really want?’ So we kind of had a change in our attitude and said ‘okay, what can we do to deliver the very best experience for our schools and our students?’ And out of that came an attitude that you cannot be afraid of a new idea.”
This attitude filters down to the way it does business in baseball, which is historically one of the ASUN’s strongest sports.
Last season, with baseball membership growing to 12 teams, the league first made the decision to split the standings into East and West divisions. Then, they had each team play a home-and-home round-robin schedule within each division to make up the conference slate. Put another way, teams from the East and West division didn’t play each other as part of ASUN play.
Much more so than with a single-table standings system, the two-division setup with no cross-divisional play really opens the door for unique approaches to conference tournaments, and that’s where the ASUN really took the ball and ran with it. Not only did it expand the tournament field from six teams to eight, it made aggressive choices with the qualification requirements and format.
First, teams were split into two pools. The top two seeds in Pool A were the respective division winners, in this case Liberty from the East and Lipscomb from the West. Seeds three and four in Pool A were made up of the two highest-ranked teams in RPI, regardless of division. That ended up being Kennesaw State and Florida Gulf Coast, both from the East.
Pool B was made up of the four best remaining teams in the conference in terms of RPI, once again regardless of division. Those ended up being, in order, Jacksonville, Eastern Kentucky, North Florida and Jacksonville State, making the final tally five teams from the East and three from the West.
There were detractors of the format, to be sure. Central Arkansas fans were no doubt perturbed that their team was left out despite going into the final weekend of the regular season with a chance to win the West Division and after finishing 18-12 and six-and-a-half games better than tournament participant UNF in regular season conference play.
But this system was set up with the clear goal of protecting the ASUN’s best teams, getting in as many high-RPI games as possible in the conference tournament and doing everything in the league’s power to put it in position to get multiple teams into regionals.
“In that spot where you have contenders, how do you do something to increase the odds your contenders distinguish themselves? That was something that the coaches all wanted to do. They said ‘look, whatever we do, it has to increase the odds that our contenders can get an at-large bid,’’ Gumbart said. “So once you had that in place, we ran some mathematical scenarios, and we looked at different formats.”
And that ethos wasn’t just seen in the way the field was assembled. It was also seen in the format of the competition. After three games of pool play, the top three teams from Pool A advanced to the semifinals, while just the winner of Pool B made it to that stage.
That made for some awkward endings for some teams. UNF and Jacksonville State had their final Pool B game against each other canceled because the pool champion had already been decided by virtue of Eastern Kentucky going 3-0, but pulling three of the four semifinal teams from Pool A again protected the top teams from exposure to damaging losses prior to the championship game.
You know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men, and this unique conference tournament setup was no guarantee of any specific result, but it worked. Liberty and Kennesaw State, the two teams with legitimate at-large hopes, met in the tournament title game, with KSU securing the automatic bid, and when the bracket was released on Memorial Day, both teams made the field of 64.
“It was good for TV, it was good for the fans and it turned out to be good for our at-large options,” Gumbart said.
With the conference growing again—it will have 14 members in 2023 with Austin Peay arriving from the OVC and Queens moving up from Division II—the ASUN will have to iterate yet again.
It’s doing away with the divisions for next season, and therefore won’t be able to replicate last season’s conference tournament format exactly. But whatever the league lands on, the motivation to protect its best teams should be even greater this time around.
Last season the conference had five teams finish 164 or worse in RPI, and that number might go up in 2023, with Queens transitioning to Division I and Austin Peay having finished 244 in RPI last season.
Then, the road could get tougher still in 2024 and beyond as Liberty, currently the most consistent winner in the ASUN, moves to Conference USA, along with Jacksonville State. There are a couple of big-picture discussions being had within the league to mitigate that.
“One, how many conference games are you going to play? And you could play 18 or 24 or 30 or you could play 36 or whatever. Our folks have said (that) 30 is plenty. That fills the weeks that most of your colleagues are playing conference play, so you don’t have scheduling issues. But we don’t need to play more than that because we need the opportunity to play non-conference games and win,” Gumbart said. “The second one is how many advance to the tournament? We don’t take everybody. If you come in and you have a horrible record, even beating you lowers the opponent’s RPI. So how many do you take and how do you conduct the tournament? We still spend a lot of time discussing those issues.”
When you take big swings like the ASUN has, you’re going to get reactions all over the board. What’s inventive and fun for one person can be seen as unfairly putting a thumb on the scale to another.
Gumbart gets that, and it’s why in the immediate aftermath of last year’s baseball tournament wrapping up, he put out an open call on Twitter for feedback.
“I try to do things that will allow me to connect,” Gumbart said. “I’m not a social media expert by any means, but (I) try to be out there and give people a chance. I always know a lot of people use it as an emotional outlet for their criticism. They don’t like something and so they can sit at home and type and sometimes it becomes almost a bullying thing. But in general, if you have sincere interest in something, you appreciate a response, so I responded to a few tweets and said ‘hey thanks, I appreciate your passion, and if you care that much, let me know what’s wrong with it.’ ”
There’s only so much a mid-major conference can do to fight the tides in college athletics and remain competitive nationally, but rather than simply laying back and letting that tide wash over it in the name of not ruffling any feathers, the ASUN is doing what it can to put its league in position to play in and win games in June, and that’s worth celebrating.