(STATS) - Innovative thinking continues to be an integral part of FCS football as it tries to remain strong across the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
While fighting for relevancy in the subdivision, the Big South Conference has turned to a conference that doesn't sponsor football to establish a unique member partnership.
Under the arrangement, announced Tuesday, current or future Atlantic Sun Conference scholarship-football members within the geographic footprint of the Big South will automatically be admitted to the conference as associate football members.
With Coastal Carolina leaving this year for the Sun Belt on the FBS level, the Big South has dropped to six football programs - the FCS low and the NCAA minimum for a conference to have its champion automatically qualify for the 24-team national playoffs. There are four full-time members in Charleston Southern, Gardner-Webb, Liberty and Presbyterian, and two associate members in Kennesaw State and Monmouth.
But the two-conference partnership provides a guaranteed home for Kennesaw State, an Atlantic Sun member in other sports, and a potential guaranteed home for other football programs, including Atlantic Sun members Jacksonville and Stetson and Big South member Campbell. Those three play on the FCS level in the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League, and each program would join Big South football should it move to the scholarship level.
"We're excited about it for a couple of reasons," Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. "Number one, it can certainly enhance Big South football from a membership perspective. We've had an awful lot of success in the Big South and the 15 years we've been playing FCS football. Entering into a creative partnership like this can really continue that success and growth of the Big South. Certainly it helps the Atlantic Sun in what they're trying to do with their membership.
"The other reason I'm excited about it is I really think collaboration is important, especially in this day and age in Division I. All the challenges that we have, whether it's conference realignment or financial challenges, scheduling, travel, all those kinds of things, I think it's going to be very really important moving forward that everybody takes a look at how can we work together rather than just working on our own."
The agreement doesn't change the conference name as the football teams will play under the banner of the Big South. The conference, which spans the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, was formed in 1983, but didn't sponsor football until 2002. Liberty is the conference's long-time remaining power and Charleston Southern is the defending champion. Pro Bowlers Justin Bethel, Josh Norman and Mike Tolbert are among 12 former Big South players on NFL rosters to begin the 2016 season.
"We have really good football teams in our league and we've started to get a little bit of a national footprint," Presbyterian coach Harold Nichols said, "so I would think that would be pretty inviting to teams to be able to come and be a part of that."
Schools in the 10-member Big South that don't sponsor football are High Point, Longwood, Radford, North Carolina-Asheville and Winthrop.
Two ASUN members, North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast, have conducted feasibility studies for the addition of football, but have no immediate plans for starting programs. ASUN members Lipscomb, New Jersey Institute of Technology and South Carolina Upstate also don't sponsor football.
"The Big South has received multiple postseason berths, earned multiple postseason wins and had many postseason hosting opportunities for its football members," ASUN commissioner Ted Gumbart said. "We plan to contribute strongly and significantly to the continued growth of our joint football league and look forward to enhancing the winning tradition of Big South football."
"I think there will be (change)," Kallander said, "but I'm not suggesting any is going to be imminent."