COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Southern Conference officials believe they have secured the league's future -- and reversed a troubling trend -- by adding East Tennessee, Mercer and VMI as new members.
The conference announced Thursday that East Tennessee and Mercer accepted invitations, while VMI's addition must be ratified Friday by the school's Board of Visitors.
"All indications are they will accept our invitation," conference Commissioner John Iamarino said.
The SoCon had been one of the most plundered leagues recently with five of its 12 members choosing to leave since November.
"We lost some good members who left for some very good reasons," said Wofford athletic director Richard Johnson. "But with the core group remaining and three new members, in three years it'll be a Southern Conference that seemed as strong as it always was."
East Tennessee was part of the Southern Conference from 1978 until 2005 when it left for the Atlantic Sun Conference. VMI competed in the Southern Conference for 79 years until 2003. Mercer had been one of the A-Sun's founding members in 1978.
All three are expected to join in July 2014, giving the league 10 members for the 2014-15 academic year.
"The addition of these three institutions will solidify the Southern Conference," Iamarino said, "and ensure our position as a vibrant league with a bright future."
And maybe end the full-scale rush to leave the league the past six months.
College of Charleston began the exodus in November with its move to the Colonial Athletic Association. Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, two of the SoCon's most powerful football schools, left for the Sun Belt Conference, while basketball powerhouse Davidson will join the Atlantic 10. The latest departure came earlier this month when Elon bolted for the Colonial.
A-Sun commissioner Ted Gumbart said his league has had inquiries from schools seeking membership.
"While today's announcement is not unexpected, it is clear that the conclusion of some relationships often spur the evolution of others, and this will now be the case for the A-Sun," he said.
Iamarino doesn't think realignment and reconfiguration of conference affiliations is done yet, not with the four-time playoff for Football Bowl Subdivision programs on the horizon. But he believes the SoCon found some stability with its latest additions.
As proof, Iamarino pointed to the seven remaining members after Elon chose to leave. He said all the athletic directors got on the phone, unprompted by the league, and gave commitments to one another, saying their intentions are to remain and restore the Southern Conference.
"I actually feel like in the next few years we have a chance to be more stable than we've been in the last seven or eight years," Iamarino said.
Mercer president William D. Underwood said the school's executive committee of the board of trustees voted unanimously to accept the Southern Conference's invitation to join. He said the move would restore historic rivalries for the school and also "reduce travel burdens on our student athletes."
All Mercer sports except men's and women's lacrosse and women's sand volleyball, which are not conducted in the new league, will compete in the Southern Conference. The school said that includes football, which is returning next fall after halting 72 years ago. Mercer football will compete in the Pioneer League next fall and join the SoCon for 2014.
"Our coaches and student-athletes are looking forward to competing in the Southern Conference," Mercer athletic director Jim Cole said. "This is a good move for Mercer in general and for the athletics department in particular."
East Tennessee is also bringing back football and Iamarino said the league will have nine teams competing for its NCAA automatic bid in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs by 2016.
Iamarino said it was impossible to adequately replace the Appalachian State and Georgia Southern football programs, which have won or shared the conference football crown in 20 of the past 27 years. They've combined for nine national championships since 1985.
Neither can compete for next year's conference title because they'll be above the 63-scholarship limit for FCS schools as they transition to FBS.
"We are very excited about the fact that we've got two new programs that are going to build their stations the right way" in Mercer and East Tennessee, he said.
Iamarino didn't close the door on the Southern Conference growing, although he said that discussion would be tabled until the fall meetings at the earliest so the three new members could have a say. "I'm getting the sense the membership is looking for stability and wants to be content with this group before we get any bigger," he said.