Hampton University sent seismic shockwaves through the HBCU sports world when they announced Nov. 16 their plans to leave the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference for the Big South on July 1, 2018 season. Their decision to forsake the historic Black college allegiance and take their talents to a predominately White conference prompted an array of emotions spanning the globe from “turning their back on their people” to “selling out HBCU’s” throughout the world of social media.
Hampton University is leaving the MEAC for the Big South Conference meaning their HBCU rivalries, such as with Howard, may be over. (Courtesy photo)
Skeptics questioned President Dr. William Harvey’s vision for his athletic program citing their leaving the comfort of the CIAA and Division II for the MEAC and Division I when they stepped up in 1995. They had a vision, made the financial investment in facilities and enjoyed an unprecedented level of championship success over the last 22 years.
The program gave HBCU basketball programs one shining moment to believe in when Tarvis Williams sank Iowa State during the first round of the NCAA Men’s Tournament in 2001. Hampton was the fourth 15 seed to eliminate a number two seed at the time. Center David Johnson’s hoisting of coach Steve Merfeld while triumphantly fist pumping at midcourt has become the personification of March Madness ranking as one of the iconic moments in American sports history.
Hampton legitimized itself as a mid-major Division I program by producing a diversified championship portfolio that improved the national credibility of the MEAC while forcing the program to expand its trophy case. They won 87 conference championships, produced six Olympians who won four gold medals, and brought recognition to a conference whose national visibility has benefitted from their success as a member.
Not only was Hampton a leader with success on the field, the impact of Harvey’s vision and leadership leveled the academic field. He helped author legislation and created programs that forced the NCAA to deal with the difficult challenges all mid-major and small institutions face to remain academically compliant despite institutional budgetary constraints.
Hampton’s relationship with the MEAC brought notoriety to the program and to the conference but, it didn’t advance their brand. The Pirates competitive success never created passion in its alumni or resonated with the fans. Their fan base didn’t travel and the only time the Pirates sold out on campus events was for the homecoming game during football season.
Organizers of HBCU Classics enjoyed the cache of using the Hampton “brand” to invite them to play in marquee events but fans never responded. Their last two notable invites – to the Urban League classic in New York and to the Nation’s Classic in DC – failed partially because Hamptonians didn’t show up.
Hampton is not selling out or turning their back on HBCU sports. Instead it could be a signal of things to come. With programs searching for new revenue streams and ways to become fiscally responsible, Harvey’s vision appears to be ahead of the curve again.
This move to the Big South will shrink its conference travel budget because they no longer face competing between Delaware and Florida which saves money especially in non-revenue generating sports. They are following Tennessee State’s Ohio Valley Conference model where they play teams in neighboring states (North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia) although they will travel to New Jersey, Georgia, and Alabama for football only.
Hampton’s impact on the MEAC remains while Dr. Dennis Thomas – their former athletic director – remains commissioner. Thomas will need to tap into his old boss’s reservoir of vision to keep from an even greater purge that could be its demise.