ODU: More Than Just Three Letters


Sometimes a confluence of events results in an unexpected outcome.  It can be difficult to adequately articulate how seemingly unrelated factors come together in an explosion that overturns our comfort level.  Even if all known factors are identified and acknowledged, there may be unknown factors beyond comprehension.

As a graduate of Old Dominion University, the last several weeks have been…interesting.  On May 1, I received a tip from two separate people that the administration was looking to explore a change in conference affiliation.  This was based on recent conference realignments across the NCAA landscape, including within its current conference.  One of the options the school was supposed to have pondered was a move to Conference USA.

Fast-forward a few weeks: ODU formally announced on May 17, 2012, a change from the Colonial Athletic Association to Conference USA.  This meant leaving the conference it had known for more than two decades.

After the jump we’ll explore Old Dominion’s move, three letters at a time.


Unabashedly, I grew up watching football from as early as I can remember.  The sport has always made sense to me, and I literally don’t remember autumn or winter seasons without football in my life.

When I started as a freshman at Old Dominion in 1996, the premiere sport was basketball (both men’s and women’s).  Jeff Capel’s program had effectively reached its peak, while Wendy Larry’s program was experiencing a renaissance of sorts.  And yet I was somewhat jealous of my high school friends who attended Virginia Tech, UVa, James Madison, and William and Mary because their schools had the premier college sport (football).

Years after I graduated, Old Dominion announced in 2006 that it would start an intercollegiate football program.  I’m aware of an earlier push during the 1980’s to get football at ODU, but that attempt failed.  That this current attempt actually came to fruition, thanks to then-president Dr. Runte and then-athletic director Dr. Jarrett, brought me endless joy.

Already a member of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) in its other intercollegiate sports, it was natural for ODU to join CAA Football.  The conference, which had previously operated as the Yankee Conference for decades (and “A-10 Football” for a couple years), provided ODU such natural rivalries as James Madison, Delaware, and William & Mary.

It meant nothing to me or other fans of ODU that CAA Football was an FCS conference (formerly D-1AA).  The Monarchs were getting a football team and would face fellow CAA rivals.

The Hampton Roads community loves its football.  A massive problem, though, is that the closest major football team (college of professional) has always been the Washington Redskins.  This isn’t an insinuation that rooting for the ‘Skins is a problem; rather, the closest football team with which the area identified was more than a three hour drive away (even without traffic).  Hampton University and Norfolk State have had NCAA football programs for some time now, but they did not capture the interest of the larger Hampton Roads area.

When ODU played its first football season in 2009, the CAA was a better conference than the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), home to both HU and NSU.  From its first game on September 5, 2009, ODU’s program provided more of a big-league feel to its football experience than either of those schools.  Hampton Roads exploded with pride in ODU football.  Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium has a capacity of just under 20,000; the Monarch sold out its season-ticket allotment.  It got to the point that they had to put some customers on a wait-list for tickets before the opening kickoff.  (Roughly 1/4 of the tickets are reserved for students and fans of visiting teams.)

The preceding paragraph was laid out to underscore this: Hampton Roads embraced Old Dominion as the premiere local football team.  Going 9-2, 8-3 and 10-3 in its first three seasons (with 21 consecutively sold-out games) while operating at net profits justifies the decision to adopt football.  The fact that it was “just” FCS didn’t matter:  Monarch fans were proud of Old Dominion football.  Old Dominion football was proud to be part of the CAA.  The CAA is proud to be the premiere conference in the FCS.


For fans of Seth MacFarland and “Family Guy,” I’m not using this passage to promote his new movie starring a CGI teddy bear.  Rather, I refer to the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

Having attended my share of ODU basketball games at The Norfolk Scope (men’s team) and The Fieldhouse (women’s team), it should suffice to say that “The Ted” is a step above both of them.  By “a step above both of them,” I mean that “the Ted” has received recognition as one of the nation’s best arenas for its size.

Construction of the Ted in the early 2000’s was a bit of a gamble considering where ODU’s premiere sports were at the time.  The women’s basketball team was nearing the end of its run of 17 consecutive CAA titles.  Furthermore, the men’s team was floundering under the watch of Jeff Capel.

(Side note –despite that last sentence, you’ll never hear me criticize “The Capable Coach Caple.”  Having met him and some of his student-athletes, I know firsthand that he’s a good man who brought good people into the program.  However, he didn’t win enough and he wasn’t the salesman that Blaine Taylor is.  Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that these are college students who use sports as a tool for an education.  Coach Capel recruited good kids.  He just didn’t win enough to keep his job.)

For the administration to invest tens of millions of dollars into a state-of-the-art arena without a guarantee of future success was admittedly a gamble.  When ODU and Coach Capel separated, the administration brought in Coach Taylor.

Since this is a football site, I submit the Cliff’s Notes version of the 2000’s.  After starting from scratch, Coach Taylor revived the men’s basketball team into a consistent winner.  In 2005 Old Dominion won the CAA basketball tournament in dramatic fashion.  Between 2005 and 2011, Coach Taylor led the Monarchs to four NCAA tournament appearances along with a semifinal appearance in the NIT – not bad for a program in a mid-major basketball conference.  Each basketball scholarship became fully endowed (ODU had more fully-endowed scholarships than the rest of the CAA combined), and the university eventually led the CAA in average attendance.  For much of her career at The Ted, Wendy Larry’s teams continued to dominate the conference as well.

The excitement that Blaine Taylor and Wendy Larry were able to generate through basketball brought donors back to the table.  The Big Blue Club, the fundraising organization that recently gave way to the Old Dominion Athletic Fund, saw steady growth in both members and donations.  This increased excitement in ODU athletics carried over to a Hampton Roads football-starved fan base that lacked a football team geographically closer than the Redskins.

Make no mistake – the continued success of men’s and women’s basketball at The Ted was integral to the success of ODU football.  In fact, football at Old Dominion may not have happened without it.


I remember watching UNC Wilmington blow a sizeable lead to George Washington in the first round of the 2006 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.  That Seahawks squad was among the best CAA team ever comprised to that point.  But a funny thing happened – George Mason University, which received an at-large invitation to the tournament that year, beat Michigan State and UNC to make the Sweet 16.  Then they beat Wichita State to make the Elite Eight.  Then they beat the University of Connecticut to reach the 2006 Final Four.

I remember watching those GMU games and hearing their fans repeatedly chant, “C-A-A!” following their wins.  Although the Patriots lost in the semi-final round to eventual-champion Florida, I remember being struck by fans that cared about the CAA as a conference as much as I did.

On the one hand, I am a fan of ODU.  On the other hand, I am a fan of most universities that have represented the CAA.  To hear Patriot fans chanting “C-A-A” following wins when they could’ve only chanted “G-M-U” was enlightening and encouraging.  When the Monarchs beat Notre Dame in 2010, I watched the game with a Towson graduate who was just as happy for the CAA as I was for ODU.  When the senior-laden Monarch squad lost a heart-breaker to Butler in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament, fans of most Colonial schools offered sincere support.

Defending the CAA and most of its fan bases is not difficult.  I personally have rooted for most schools to succeed in athletics (except when facing ODU), and I’ve encountered fans of most CAA schools who’ve said the same thing.  Having five of twelve schools located in Virginia undoubtedly generates familiarity and thus (respectful) rivalries.  But there are also fans of CAA schools outside Virginia who belong in this close-knit conference because they care just as much.

And part of what made Old Dominion’s role in the CAA was just that – literally almost half the conference was comprised of Virginia-based schools.  With rivalries that included JMU, W&M, GMU and Virginia Commonwealth, there has been a sense of rivalry that carried into sports beyond the lone common thread they all shared – basketball.

To discount Old Dominion’s burgeoning school spirit without factoring other CAA schools is a disservice to all involved.  They all helped raise the level of competition between and amongst each other in multiple athletic venues.


One advantage ODU experienced in the CAA was the aforementioned close proximity of the multiple Virginia schools, which contained travel costs to a degree.  The non-revenue-generating Olympic sports, which have attained surprising historical success on the national scale, could travel to face several conference opponents via bus trips.

The decision to switch conferences eliminates this advantage.  Although Old Dominion could continue to play other Virginia schools in non-conference games, the school will be joining a league with three Texas schools as the only Virginia-based program.  Its closest conference foe, East Carolina University (ECU), is at least a couple hours away on bus.  Between additional travel costs and additional scholarships – including more for women’s sports – cost efficiencies of CAA membership are lost.

But the Monarchs would do well if they can replicate the football success and fan support ECU has had.  The Pirates began playing what was then called “D1A” football in 1977, and remained an independent until 1997 when they joined Conference USA.  In 1991 they finished the season ranked #9 in the country.  Although the team has gone 11-14 in the last two years under Ruffin McNeil’s watch, they won consecutive CUSA titles in 2008 and 2009, have had four AP All-Americans since 2001 and averaged more than 50,000 at home games last year.  That’s pretty good attendance for a non-BCS team; the fans clearly have pride in their school.

The media confirmed rumors that ECU helped pitch ODU to CUSA, if for no other reason than to balance the conference’s geographical composition.  Ironically, East Carolina was one of the seven founding members of the Colonial Athletic Association.  (Along with Navy, Richmond, George Mason, William and Mary, James Madison and Wilmington, the Pirates played its sports in the CAA [except football] from 1983 through 2001, after which they switched to CUSA for all sports.)  For one school to go bat for sows the seeds of a mutually-beneficial relationship.


Old Dominion athletic teams have one more season to compete in the CAA.  The football team will be eligible to participate in the FCS playoffs, which was important to the administration.  They wanted to give this year’s senior class, which is the first recruiting class Coach Bobby Wilder signed, a chance to compete for the national title.

Will ODU’s success in the CAA translate into success in CUSA (i.e., winning?)  There are too many factors to consider more than a year before the move becomes official.  But the strength of the administration points towards eventual success.  Looking out for its first recruiting class, superior fundraising and handling its departure from the CAA better than another school are all signs that the president and athletic director know to handle the business side of things.

It’s up to the players to perform on the field…which they have done to date.  For more specific analysis of its success, you can read my SaturdayBlitz article as well as a post I completed for a Charlotte 49er blogger.

More Than Three Letters

Progress and advancement cannot be contained, nor should they be.  With a local market itching for a “major league” team to follow, ODU football’s instant success (27-8 through three seasons) without an immediate competitor created an opportunity.  While Hampton Roads have had the Norfolk Admirals (minor league hockey) and the Norfolk Tides (minor league baseball) for decades, the football-centric community missed a “major league” football team it could call its own.  Three seasons of sold-out games (including a three-thousand-plus wait list) provided sufficient evidence that the area was ready for a higher level of football.

That higher level of football for Old Dominion can no longer be discussed in the context of three letters.  Now when fans talk about Monarch football, it will require four: