The fall of 1979 was a scary time for the youthful Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Nearly ten years after seven members of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), plus South Carolina State, decided to break away from the mother conference, it was facing the possibility of losing nearly half its membership.
Maryland Eastern-Shore, Morgan State and North Carolina Central decided they did not want the Division I status that the MEAC had been eyeing since its inception, and announced they would be leaving. UMES had already let its football program go, and in 1979 it dropped out of the conference and sought to reconcile with the CIAA. It was denied entry due to its lack of football and re-entered the conference in 1981.
Morgan State and NCCU announced they would be leaving after the 1980 school year.
Suddenly, the league would be down to just four schools. MEAC Commissioner Ken Free spent much of his time in the Greensboro, NC office trying to reassure the conference’s remaining members (Delaware State, Howard, North Carolina A&T, South Carolina State) that the spoils of Division I would be
“Getting into Division I on a full scale is a matter of economics,” Free said. “The cost of football, plus fielding teams in a minimum of seven other sports, is prohibitive to a lot of schools.”
The South rises
Just when things were looking bleak for the conference, it got a ray of sunshine from Florida. Florida A&M, the 1978 Division I-AA champions, announced in August 1979 that it would be leaving the SIAC for a Division conference. A member of the second-oldest HBCU football conference for 66 years, the move came down to money and visibility and a desire to be Division I-AA in all sports. The decision was between the MEAC and SWAC, but ultimately FAMU decided to go north.
“The SWAC has the money and the teams, but the MEAC has a full-time commissioner, a full-time public relations man, a staffed office,” FAMU AD Hansel Tookes told the Tallahassee Democrat.
“There is no doubt this is quite a lift for the conference and gets us back up to six schools,” Free told The Morning News. “Now we can reach our objective of an automatic berth in the Division I playoffs and it can help us attract even more schools.”
By the early 1980s, the league was officially a part of Divison I, but things weren’t exactly smooth. The conference was given an automatic bid to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in 1981, which was claimed by Howard.
The football playoffs were another story, one that almost lost the conference FAMU. A 1983 scheduling conflict between FAMU and BCC, led to FAMU being declared ineligible for the title. FAMU’s ineligibility meant that the conference had only five teams
January 1984 was another turning point for the conference. Morgan State was re-admitted to the conference in 1984, which was good as it faced the real possiblity of losing FAMU, and possibly even North Carolina A&T.
Aggies nearly revolt
A&T, considered the flagship school of the MEAC from its inception, was having second thoughts about this Division I thing as well. Athletic Director Orby Moss told newspapers that things were getting desparate.
“A&T has a long football tradition, but that tradition has been getting kicked quickly. We’re on the verge of making a decision. We’re either going to get more funding for football or drop to Division II.
“We’re one of 20 schools playing football in North Carolina,” he said. “There is no state funding for our athletes. We’re allowed only 43 in-state scholarships. If we take a young man from out of state, that counts as too. The money from these scholarships must come from ticket sales, fundraising and student athletic fees. It’s tough and I believe Maryland schools are in the same situation.
Free didn’t appreciate Moss’ candid comments.
“He shouldn’t say those things. A&T was a prime motivator in our league’s joining Division I-AA. The school president is a fighter and a promoter of progress. Going back to mediocrity is not his forte.”
Things settle (sorta)
A&T never did leave the MEAC, of course. The conference would add Coppin State in 1985, albeit without football.
And all the schools that did eventually returned. Morgan State came back in 1986 and so did FAMU (though it would try to leave again two decades later). Even North Carolina Central eventually found its way back after another 25 years in its original home, the CIAA.
Eventually the conference would add two other giants from the CIAA in Hampton (1995) and Norfolk State (1996). A decade later Winston-Salem State was accepted as a provisional member, eventually deciding against a permanent move to Divsion II and returning to the mother league. Savannah State was accepted soon after WSSU and NCCU, but is dropping back to Division II at the end of the school year.
Forty years after it nearly collapsed, the MEAC is still around, however many of its schools are struggling to stay afloat in the raging waters of Division I athletics. With Hampton out and Savannah State on its way back to D2, and other schools still fighting to keep their heads above water, the next five years could be equally as tenuous as they were from 1979 through 1984.