Six years ago, College of Coastal Georgia made the leap from a junior college with just two athletic programs to a four-year institution fielding four times as many teams.
It would have been understandable at the time if some had doubts about how the Mariner programs would fare at the NAIA level. But in those six years, Coastal has won two NAIA championships in men’s golf and seen its women’s golf, volleyball, women’s tennis, women’s basketball and men’s tennis teams reach their respective NAIA national tournaments.
Now, Coastal is embarking on a new chapter for its athletic programs as it switches from the Southern States Athletic Conference to The Sun Conference. The move is an exciting one for the college, Athletic Director William Carlton said.
“We’re really excited,” Carlton said. “I think competitively it’s a good fit for us. Golf is probably the strongest sport in the league, so not only will it be good for us competitively but I think it will help improve their reputation and competitiveness. They’re competitive across the board.”
Switching conferences six years into becoming a member of the NAIA may seem odd, but the SSAC has changed dramatically since Coastal joined. The Mariners became the 15th school in the league when they joined as a provisional member in the 2011-12 school year and became a full member the following academic year. Eight of those teams have since left the conference.
“There was nothing wrong with our previous athletic conference,” Carlton said. “We had great relationships with the Southern States. The fact of the matter is the membership of the Southern States changed so dramatically over those six years, it became difficult for us to continue to thrive.”
The biggest benefit of the switch for Coastal is geographically. With members spread across the South from Brunswick to New Orleans, traveling to SSAC games was an arduous task for Coastal teams. The Sun Conference features schools in closer proximity to the Golden Isles with eight schools located in Florida, two schools in Southeast Georgia and University of South Carolina Beaufort, located in the southeast portion of the state.
“I think the biggest thing in talking with our staff is that the travel impacts will be much, much less not only — and most importantly — for our student athletes, but also for our coaches and staff,” Carlton said. “That’s really the most important thing.”
Less travel time not only means a lower impact level on the athletes’ bodies, it also means fewer classes missed for the students.
“When we get off the bus and get ready to compete, we won’t be as worn out as we were,” Carlton said. “The statistic that I like to use when I’m talking about that is when we were doing our analysis, we saw that the longest trip in the The Sun conference is shorter than the average trip in the Southern States. It’s going to be a significant impact for our student athletes but also financially. It’s going to be less hotel room nights, fewer meals and all of that is a significant help to our budget as we try to grow.”
Just how much time does a road trip to the far reaches of the SSAC take up? Look no further than how much traveling time the basketball teams have when playing a weekend’s worth of games in Mississippi and Louisiana.
“Basketball games were Thursdays and Saturdays, so most of our teams would leave on Wednesday morning and take about a 10-hour drive to get to the first site,” Carlton said.”(The teams) spend the night, get up the next morning, have shoot-around and play that day, get on a bus, travel another three or four hours, play Saturday afternoon, get on a bus and have a 10- to 12-hour ride back after playing. We’d leave Wednesday morning and probably get back (early) Sunday morning.”
Coastal will still be playing games on Thursday and Saturday this upcoming season, but the closer proximity of schools in the The Sun Conference will sometimes allow the Mariners to come back to Brunswick on Thursdays. The longest excursions in the conference will be trips down Interstate 95 to schools in the Miami area.
“Even when we’re going down to the Miami area, we’ll be able to leave Wednesday after classes, drive and be back at a reasonable hour on Saturday night and get a full night’s sleep,” Carlton said. “Students on Sunday instead of sleeping and recovering, they can actually get a night sleep, study and get ready for classes the next day. Saving that eight or 10 hours on either end of the trip is very significant.”
Not having to miss classes on Wednesday will also help lower the burden on Coastal’s student athletes. The players will not have to worry about coordinating with instructors about making up a test or classwork they might have missed because they were on a 10-hour bus ride.
“It just reduces the overall pressure of having to coordinate what student athletes have to do,” Carlton said.
The move is more than just a geographic fit. Carlton said the move is also a cultural fit.
Last week, Coastal hosted the annual meeting of The Sun’s athletic directors, and Carlton came away impressed with how Coastal will fit in to its new athletic home.
“It was a very collegial group,” Carlton said. “I think a lot of their competitive philosophies are different in the sense of how they view the student-athlete experience, but very positive overall. I think our students and coaches will find that very encouraging.”