MEAC Ken Free
2018-19 Basketball

How moving to D1 nearly killed the MEAC in the 1980s

Moving to Division I competition was a lofty goal for the young MEAC that left several schools sliding in and out of the conference.

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The fall of 1979 was a scary time for the youthful Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Nearly ten years after six 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 there, if they could wait it out.

“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.

Eventually FAMU went with the MEAC. A few months later, rival Bethune-Cookman College announced it would be joining the MEAC following the 1980 season, giving FAMU a Florida rival.

“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 eligibile for the title and allowing the NCAA to take the autobid. FAMU responded by sending a letter of withdrawl to the conference office in Greensboro.

January 1984 was another turning point for the conference. Morgan State was re-admitted to the conference that year, which was good as it faced the real possibility of losing FAMU, and possibly even North Carolina A&T.

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How moving to D1 nearly killed the MEAC in the 1980s
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