GREENVILLE, S.C. — After nearly 30 years of competing in the Peach Belt Conference, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is heading back to its roots as 15 of its 16 athletic teams will compete in the Conference Carolinas starting in the 2021-2022 academic year.
Before making the jump to NCAA Division II and joining the Peach Belt in 1992, UNCP competed as a NAIA member in the Conference Carolinas for 17 seasons, starting in 1976.
Also making the move with UNCP is Francis Marion University. The pair are the 12th and 13th institutions in the Conference Carolinas and will be the league’s only public universities.
“As we entered into this process, it became very apparent that Francis Marion University and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke just made us stronger. They made us stronger in a lot of ways,” Conference Carolinas Commissioner Chris Colvin said via video conference call on Thursday. “They have very strong athletic programs, they have a strong commitment to athletics and we believe it will enhance our competitiveness even more. These are two institutions that serve their communities in a really unique and special way.”
Both teams will be eligible to compete for championships when they join in August 2021, Colvin said.
The move brings uniformity for the Braves as all teams, except for football, will compete in the same conference for the first time. Football will remain a Mountain East Conference associate member.
Before, 11 of the 16 teams were competing in the Peach Belt, while women’s swimming, wrestling and both men’s and women’s indoor track and field were all associate members in the Mountain East Conference in the 2019-2020 school year.
“Moving to Conference Carolinas we have 15 sports under the same umbrella, all pulling for the same goal and then you look at how many teams in Conference Carolinas support those championships,” UNCP Director of Athletics Dick Christy said. “Now wrestling, and track and field, and indoor track and field, and volleyball, and all these sports that may not have had a lot of in-league competition, they have robust championships and they have a great chance to have an awesome experience.”
One main point of emphasis about the move from Christy and Francis Marion Director of Athletics Murray Hartzler was travel.
“You look at it from travel, we are going to save an hour and 45 minutes on average in travel. From that standpoint, it’s going to impact our kids academically,” Hartzler said. “This we did not come by lightly; it’s something we have explored in terms of what is the best match or fit for us as far as conference. We have played a number of these schools since the ‘70s for a long time.”
The move makes UNCP’s longest conference round trip to King University in Bristol, Tennessee, which is a little more than 600 miles round trip. In the Peach Belt, UNCP had six road trips that were longer than 600 miles round trip.
“They’ve already structured and reached out to the coaching staffs to try and be proactive to what those schedule structures will be. We know the mileage averages and we know that we will be 170 miles shorter on average in league play,” Christy said. “Some of that will depend on how many schedules will be double round-robin, or if we play in pods and what each sport looks like, but we’ll know immediately what this will allow us to now reinvest in the student experience, rather than gas.”
The move by the Patriots and the Braves will not only keep the rivalry between the schools alive, but also help rekindle other regional rivalries on a regular basis due to the growth of some Peach Belt scheduling in recent years that limited non-conference scheduling.
“When you’ve got a chance to stick with your natural travel partner and rival, and still make a move from a funding and competitive standpoint, it’s a great fit,” Christy said. “All of my conversations with our donors consistently when those guys tell old war stories when they were athletes, they are talking about Atlantic Christian (Barton), Mount Olive and Lees-McRae. They are talking about all these schools that have been historical rivals in this state. To have five North Carolina schools and 11 in both Carolinas, that’s a huge difference in our athletes’ ability to engage with the general study population and have them travel to road games.”
Christy said the renewal of regional rivalries could service the UNCP athletic department well.
“It’s a great opportunity for us from an advancement standpoint to be able to get donors to road games and to drum up more rivals on top of Francis Marion,” Christy said.
With UNCP’s addition to the Conference Carolinas, six Conference Carolinas institutions will support football next fall after Barton and Erskine start up their programs. But as for now, there is no definitive direction for the sport in the conference that already supports 23 NCAA sports.
“We have five institutions in Conference Carolinas that sponsor football as of this fall. It’s certainly something that is going to be on our radar, but I can say right now that football is not a Conference Carolinas sport,” Colvin said. Five is not enough institutions to sponsor a sport from the NCAA standpoint. If it was, it wouldn’t be a practical scenario. Our goal in the conference office as it relates to football is to support the member institutions that have it in whatever way we possibly can to help them be successful. There is no movement now directly to football.”
Conference Carolinas member institutions in the 2020-21 academic year are Barton, Belmont Abbey, Chowan, Converse, Emmanuel, Erskine, King, Lees-McRae, Mount Olive, North Greenville and Southern Wesleyan.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.