NEW ORLEANS – The Sun Belt Conference announced today that the University of New Orleans has voluntarily withdrawn its Sun Belt Conference membership effective July 1, 2010 and additionally that the Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee, with support from the league's university presidents, voted to relieve the University from the associated fees of early withdrawal.
"It is unfortunate that UNO finds itself in financial constraints that have necessitated such drastic measures, but there is a time when tough decisions must be made. While we are proud of our past membership in the Sun Belt Conference, the University has to make changes that will allow NCAA sanctioned athletics to continue at the Division III level," said University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan.
Budget cuts for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the continuing recovery from Hurricane Katrina and the failure of a student referendum to increase student fees for athletics previously forced the university administration to establish plans to maintain a Division I athletic program with far more stringent financial constraints. However, numerous limiting factors have ultimately led UNO administrators to the recognition that a successful NCAA Division I athletics program was not an achievable goal at this time.
UNO, which was a founding member of the conference in 1976 and later rejoined the league in 1991, was authorized by the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors on December 11, 2009 to withdraw from the Sun Belt Conference by July 1, 2010, and to develop a process for a transition to NCAA Division III. UNO previously announced plans to investigate a move to Division III on November 11, 2009.
"The last several years have been unquestionably difficult on the University and the athletics department," said Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters. "The University's assessment that has led to its withdrawal from the Sun Belt Conference has assuredly also been another difficult chapter for UNO. UNO is our third longest tenured member and they will be sorely missed. The hard work put in by Chancellor Ryan and numerous other administrators on campus over the last several years of uncertainty is to be commended."
The University originally suspended nine of its 15 intercollegiate sports in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and has been operating under a waiver of the NCAA requirement that Division I institutions that do not play football sponsor a minimum of 14 sports. The University is currently sponsoring nine sports.
Following Hurricane Katrina the Sun Belt Conference authorized Carr Sports Associates of Gainesville, Fla. to help the university chart its restoration to NCAA Division I standards. Funding issues and recommendations occupied a large portion of the final report that was issued to university administrators.
Chancellor Ryan noted, "In the period following Hurricane Katrina, the Sun Belt Conference played a very proactive and positive roll in aiding in the process to save athletics at UNO. It was only through a cooperative and concerted effort that UNO was able to maintain its athletics program, and now that UNO looks to move to Division III, the Sun Belt has yet again shown itself as a partner by aiding in this transition to ensure its greatest level of success."
In addition to the request for withdrawal from the league, the University also asked for relief from a potential fine associated with leaving the conference. The Sun Belt Conference Constitution and Bylaws asks that member institutions seeking withdrawal give a year's notice and failure to do so would result in a $500,000 fine. Given the unique circumstances of UNO's withdrawal the Sun Belt Executive Committee voted unanimously, with one abstention, to waive the penalty associated with an early departure.
"UNO has made a tremendous contribution to this league and deserves the support of the conference and its member institutions as it takes its athletics program in a new direction," said Sun Belt Conference Executive Committee President and Troy Chancellor Jack Hawkins. "The officers of the Executive Committee and institutional presidents are unanimous in their belief UNO should not suffer financial penalty due to problems originating with Hurricane Katrina."
The Sun Belt Conference headquarters, which has been located in New Orleans since 1991, will remain in its downtown office as it still remains an approximate geographic center for the league's member institutions.
"The Sun Belt Conference office has been located in New Orleans for nearly 20 years and it is anticipated that league will remain headquartered here for the foreseeable future," said Commissioner Waters. "New Orleans provides an excellent meeting place for our league members because of its geography, hotel availability and meeting space."
With the withdrawal of UNO, the Sun Belt Conference will be comprised of 12 member institutions of which nine play in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Sun Belt Conference Athletic Directors discussed future scheduling during their previously scheduled winter meetings on January 13, 2010.
For the three Sun Belt sports with divisional play (men's basketball, women's basketball and volleyball) teams will remain in their current divisions with each division now comprised of six institutions (East: Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, South Alabama, Troy and Western Kentucky - West: UALR, Arkansas State, Denver, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas).
Sun Belt Conference men's and women's basketball teams will begin competing in 2010-2011 in a 16-game conference schedule with each team playing a home and away game against teams within their division. Additionally each team will play all members of the opposite division with three of those games begin played at home and three on the road. Travel partners will not be utilized.
The Sun Belt Conference Men's and Women's Basketball Championship will include all 12 members with the top two seeds from each division receiving byes. Teams will be seeded by their divisional finish and the tournament bracket will also be cross-pollinated so that East-West Division matchups are assured for the first round games. East-West Division matchups will be featured should the higher seed win each contest.
Sun Belt volleyball schedules will also feature a 16-game format, however travel partners will be utilized. The league's volleyball championship will continue to be conducted in an eight team format.
The Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship will continue under the same format with eight teams participating. The league schedule will also continue to feature 30 games for the ten teams that will compete in the league beginning in 2011. Each team will play a home and away three-game series against their natural rival with the series' scheduled for the first and last week of the season. The natural rival designations are: FIU-Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee-WKU, South Alabama-Troy, UALR-Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette-Louisiana-Monroe.
Scheduling standards for football will remain unchanged with each team playing four home conference games and four road conference games. With the anticipated arrival of South Alabama for football in 2012, the conference will expand to 10 football institutions with teams continuing an 8-game conference schedule and one natural rival remaining on the schedule each year.
"A sub-committee group of Athletic Directors was recently formed to look at future scheduling in light of UNO's potential departure," said Sun Belt Conference Chair for Athletic Directors Robert Staub. "The results of that process was presented to the all the athletic directors at the NCAA Convention and was approved. We feel good about the process and look forward to implementing our new schedules beginning with the 2010-2011 athletic season. We feel like the new schedules are fair, balance and marketable."
NCAA transfer rules are still applicable for current UNO student-athletes and all Sun Belt Conference member institutions have been notified. Any UNO student-athlete that transfers to another Sun Belt school prior to June 30, 2010 shall be subject to the intra-conference transfer requirement. Additionally, NCAA contact rules are in place, which require an institution to secure permission from the UNO athletics director (not coaches) prior to contacting a UNO student-athlete.
"It is important for the University, our member institutions and all NCAA member institutions that the rules are followed closely as this will ensure an easier transition process for UNO," said Associate Commissioner Kathy Keene.
"The Sun Belt Conference will move on as a 12-member league and there are not any current plans for expansion or contraction," said Commissioner Waters.