A lot has changed in the Southern Conference over the past 13 years. In January 2006, when John Iamarino took over as commissioner of the league, there was no Stephen Curry at Davidson, and Appalachian State was just polishing off its first of three-straight FCS football titles.
Fast-forward to 2019, and there’s a new sheriff in the SoCon, Jim Schaus, and he inherits a league that finished ranked 11 out of 33 in NCAA Division I college basketball conferences, according to the NET. Schaus also inherits a league that had two ranked teams during the season (Wofford and Furman) and saw four teams win 24 or more games. Wofford (30), Furman (25) and UNC Greensboro (29) all established school records for wins in 2018-19.
Mid-Major Madness attended the SoCon’s press conference to introduce Schaus, and was granted some one-on-one time. In the interview, he pitched his plan for the league, which places a strong emphasis on men’s basketball.
Schaus already has a history with SoCon athletics. His father, Fred Schaus, coached West Virginia from 1954-60, during the Jerry West days, when the Mountaineers went an outrageous 63-5 against SoCon foes and 146-37 overall with a trip to the 1959 national title game.
“One of the reasons this league is so important to me is because my dad coached in this league, and it is a league with such tradition in basketball, which I was able to see up close,” he said. “I have always followed the SoCon and had a great admiration for it because of my father and it’s really neat to be able to be now the commissioner of this league.”
It was not long ago that calling the SoCon a mid-major conference would have been generous. In fact, the SoCon ranked No. 30 out of 32 in the RPI in 2013-14. Two years later, the rise seemed too incremental, ranking just No. 28 at season’s end.
Following the 2012-13 season, the SoCon lost College of Charleston, which was one of its basketball powers. Then the following year, the SoCon suffered its biggest loss as a basketball conference when Davidson made the move to the Atlantic 10. Following the 2013-14 season, Elon, Appalachian State and Georgia Southern also left.
But that didn’t phase Iamarino, who went out and added three new members to offset the mass exodus. Mercer, East Tennessee State and VMI entered the league in 2014-15.
A funny thing happened with those additions, especially with ETSU, which rejoined the conference after a stint in the ASUN. Head coach Steve Forbes has won 100 games in four seasons at the helm of the program, and it has forced others in the SoCon, especially the top half of the league (Furman, UNC Greensboro, and Wofford), to keep up.
Mercer’s addition was also big, as it entered the league fresh off its upset over Duke in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
To give you an idea of just how much the league has improved, Furman, East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro have all set four-year records for the amount of wins for a senior class over the past four years.
Schaus is now charged with the responsibility of growing an already strong league. Iamarino made the commitment to go towards hoops and away from football, and now Schaus seems like the perfect fit to move the league into a new talent bracket.
“Sustaining where this league was last year for next season and seasons to come in basketball is going to be the challenge now,” he said. “The publicity and the excitement surrounding and generated by the SoCon last basketball season was incredible. Now it’s about taking that next step, and that is remaining on the mid-major college basketball radar for years to come. I think that’s how you get multiple teams in the tournament. Continuing to be relevant and successful overall as a league.”
Unfortunately for the league, neither UNC Greensboro nor Furman heard their names called on Selection Sunday in 2019. Still, the NIT was an accomplishment for the SoCon, if not what league administrators and coaches had hoped for. Now it’s about taking that next step.
Schaus comes to the Southern Conference from a couple other leagues known for mid-major hoops, the MAC and the Missouri Valley Conference. He served as Director of Athletics at Ohio (2008-19) and Wichita State (1999-2008).
Having seen the success of those two leagues, Schaus now looks to apply what he’s learned to the SoCon.
“There were a couple of things that happened and some of it was just kind of organic,” he said. “I remember one was on the facilities side where several schools one-by-one kind of renovated or upgraded it and then it was like one school said well since they upgraded theirs we’re going to have to upgrade ours and several schools built new arenas or upgraded what they already had.”
The facilities revolution has already started in the SoCon at schools like Wofford and East Tennessee State. Schaus will try to catalyze the process elsewhere and see what compromises can be made so that each team is scheduling the best games it can.
“You always want to make sure your best teams are scheduling up, and that’s not always an easy thing, and also you want to make sure your lower teams aren’t over-scheduling,” he said. “When I served on the selection committee, you might have a Power 5 school with several more big wins on their resume, but it’s not really a fair scale because all of the opportunities a big school has in conference. We always took that into account, and we tried to reward mid-major teams as best we could that made an effort to get those opportunities in the non-conference.”
Schaus also agreed there are several ways he can directly help the top teams in the league negotiate games in exempt tournaments, as well as look at other partnerships with similar conferences.
“You can look at other conference partnerships you might have and maybe have the top four teams from that conference play the top four teams from your conference and try to get a home-and-home because nobody wants to go to ETSU and nobody wants to go to Wofford to play,” Schaus said.
“You can also try and work with ESPN and those relationships to try and get as many teams invited to these exempt tournament events and especially the ones in November because it’s early in the year. You can catch a team off-guard on a neutral floor.”
Schaus has a plan in mind to make sure the SoCon keeps on the mid-major basketball radar, and it is multifaceted. He mentioned organizing new TV deals for basketball in order to potentially bring in a nationwide audience.
If Schaus has his way, it won’t be long before the SoCon is a multi-bid league.