In September, the Sun Belt grabbed Coastal Carolina from the Big South. The Chanticleers and their sweet teal turf will join Sun Belt football in 2017 and become a full FBS member in 2018.
Coastal wasn't the only school interested in joining. New Mexico State and Eastern Kentucky submitted applications.
NMSU already plays football in the Sun Belt, but is only an associate member. Its other teams sit in the WAC, hardly the epitome of stability. Ravaged by realignment, the WAC now only has eight permanent members. One more defection could bring the conference tumbling down, so it makes sense for NMSU to find a permanent home.
Per documents obtained by SB Nation, not even NMSU's football relationship with the Sun Belt is secure. According to a letter dated March 3, 2013, from the Sun Belt to New Mexico State President Manuel Pacheco, NMSU's football-only membership is a four-year deal, from the 2014 academic year through 2017. However, the deal is subject to an extension or termination after the second year, which is this year.
Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson has been non-committal about the future of both the Aggies and Idaho, whose other teams are in the Big Sky.
On September 1, Benson said, "After the 2015 football season, there will be an evaluation, an assessment and a decision made whether to extend the football-only membership for New Mexico State and Idaho. I think it's premature now to even speculate as to what that decision is."
Idaho and NMSU are a combined 1-8 this season. Benson declined to describe either as "core Sun Belt members" after the addition of Coastal Carolina.
How'd the Aggies try to change the Sun Belt's mind?
In a letter dated June 3, 2015, NMSU says its full membership would deliver a men's basketball team that has competed in four straight NCAA tournaments and "has an opportunity to increase the conference's distribution units [March Madness payouts] during NCAA play."
Officials mentioned NMSU's WAC Commissioner's Cup, given to the league's best all-around athletic department. NMSU finished 108th in the national 2014-2015 Director's Cup, which would have been the best in the Sun Belt (Louisiana-Lafayette finished 110).
New Mexico State officials understood a chief concern: the cost of travel from the Sun Belt's Southeastern base to Las Cruces. To compensate, NMSU offered travel subsidies for certain sports.
NMSU offered the conference $100,000 a year for four years to help offset football travel costs and calculated the exact travel costs for other conference schools. The initial Olympic sports subsidy would be $361,385, with the total proposed travel subsidy over seven years equaling $2,387,618. New Mexico State also offered to pay the Sun Belt's $2 million fee over the course of six years, starting with an initial payment of $540,000.
Between the subsidy and membership fee, over nine years, NMSU offered approximately $4.4 million dollars to the Sun Belt.
Whatever happens, New Mexico State isn't planning on dropping football any time soon. NMSU president Gary Carruthers recently told ESPN that "dropping football is not even a debatable issue as far as I'm concerned."
But what about Eastern Kentucky?
EKU doesn't jump off the page as an expansion candidate, though the Colonels did just take the SEC's Kentucky to overtime. The university was a founding member of the Ohio Valley Conference in 1948 and is geographically close to many OVC programs, including in-state foes Morehead State and Murray State. The Colonels don't compete at the FBS level in football, although they've been a successful FCS football program.
But EKU is so interested that it applied not just in 2015, but in 2014 as well. Materials included a full-color "Tour Book" highlighting the merits of the school, featuring recommendations from the governor of Kentucky.
EKU sold its proximity to Sun Belt schools and its football history with recent SBC additions Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. Its application mentioned EKU's five conference titles last season, an NCAA Tournament appearance in basketball, and its second OVC Commissioner's Cup in three seasons.
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Even though the university is planning a campus-wide construction boom of over $200 million dollars, the Sun Belt had facility questions, leading EKU to revise.
So EKU pitched a $10 million stadium renovation.
"If you were to look at our athletic facilities, not a lot has been done to them over the last two, three decades," EKU President Michael Benson told SB Nation. "I think that was particularly noticeable with our football stadium, which, when it was built in the late 1960s, it was one of the biggest in I-AA football. The bones of it are probably pretty good. It doesn't have any of the amenities that one expects to see at an FBS level.
"The input we got back from the Sun Belt was that we needed to focus on football, softball, and baseball. We've already done the improvements to our basketball facility, and now it's a great arena."
The pitch also included a short video, with testimonials including legendary Colonels football coach Roy Kidd:
What did Coastal Carolina tell the Sun Belt to secure its slot?
Repeated Open Records requests to CCU were rejected, as the school claimed no such formal documents existed.
That isn't to say that Coastal was a poor choice. CCU has won three straight Big South football titles and made two consecutive NCAA men's basketball tournaments. The school is near a mid-sized metropolitan area (Myrtle Beach) over two hours from any other FBS program.
Like EKU, Coastal will need to upgrade some facilities, as the football stadium currently only seats 9,214. The NCAA requires FBS programs to maintain an average paid attendance of 15,000 over a two-year period. Per Myrtle Beach Online, CCU plans to expand to about 22,000.
"One of the things that turned the tide in the favor of Coastal Carolina was the fact that they have brand new softball and baseball facilities, and they have expansion plans for their stadium," Benson added.
Does this mean Sun Belt expansion is over?
Not necessarily. The Sun Belt could elect to terminate its relationship with New Mexico State and Idaho, which would leave the league with only 10 teams, including Coastal Carolina.
Should the NCAA deregulate rules for conference championship games, perhaps the Sun Belt could remain at 10. But should the league want to go to 12 (which may allow basketball or other sports to move to divisional play to help with travel costs) there's no reason to think EKU wouldn't be a compelling candidate.