University president Dan Papp officially accepted an invitation for the Owls to join the Big South Conference as an associate member in 2015, in time for the program’s first game.
The move comes almost seven months after football was officially added as the university’s 18th sport. The Owls’ other 17 programs will continue to compete in the Atlantic Sun Conference, which does not sponsor football.
When Kennesaw State kicks off in 2015, it will immediately be eligible for the conference championship, and with it, an automatic bid into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“It’s been a long and wonderful process,” Papp said during a news conference Wednesday, inside the Owls’ future locker room at Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Kennesaw State will be joined in the Big South by Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb, Liberty, Presbyterian and Monmouth, an associate member joining the conference in 2014.
Most of the Owls’ future rivals are scattered through the Carolinas and Virginia. Monmouth is an outlying member, with its New Jersey campus about an hour south of New York. Kennesaw State will the conference’s westernmost football-playing member.
“As we evaluated where we were, we looked to expand,” Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander said. “There has been a lot of realignment that left a vulnerability in football, and as we looked around and talked with (Kennesaw State athletic director) Vaughn (Williams), we evaluated the program, the facilities and the university and found that they do things the right way with excellence and integrity.
“It was easy for our executives to make a unanimous decision to accept Kennesaw State’s application for membership, and we welcome them to the Big South Conference for football.”
Initial discussions to join a conference began last summer. Williams kept in touch with Kallander since then, and discussions ramped up this summer.
“It’s a great day for Kennesaw State,” Williams said. “It’s been an impressive journey. I think we’re a tremendous fit for the Big South, and I want to thank the commissioner for his vision that KSU is a good partner with the Big South Conference.”
Williams targeted the Big South and Southern conferences for football membership. His focus was on keeping the program in a conference based in the South that would allow the Owls to remain in the Atlantic Sun for all other sports.
“We wanted to find a FCS league that had affiliate membership,” Williams said. “Ohio Valley, they don’t have affiliate membership. CAA, potentially, but that to me isn’t in the South. We wanted regional competition, that we can have clashes and rivalries, and our fans can get in their cars and have brand knowledge of what that school is.
“We had to wait everything out. Do you talk informally to the Big South Conference? Do you talk informally to the Southern Conference? Yes, you do that because those are the conferences in the South, and we had a definite interest to be in a conference that was based in the South, and that’s where it stood. As things played out, we weren’t really in a seat to be aggressive on anything. All we could do was let people know we existed and what to see what happens from there.”
The Southern Conference’s decision to add East Tennessee State, VMI and Mercer next fall helped facilitate Kennesaw State’s move to the Big South.
“The Southern Conference pulled the trigger on ETSU, VMI and Mercer, so those discussions (with the SoCon) didn’t really happen fully,” Williams said. “There was a heightened urgency for the Big South to know about us and, thankfully, we had to play it out and let them really want to know more about us. We weren’t in the driver’s seat, I think, with this process. We had to wait and let it play out.”
Kennesaw State football coach Brian Bohannon, who began his coaching career at Gardner-Webb in 1996, was also excited about the move to the Big South.
“I knew Dr. Papp and Vaughn would find a good conference fit for us, and they hit a home run with the Big South,” Bohannon said. “We’re excited about the opportunity and chance to compete for a conference title and a national championship in our first year.
Joining the Big South will also help Kennesaw State with its scheduling for 2015.
“We’ll have six games with a full conference schedule,” Williams said. “That leaves us with four to five non-conference games. You always want to have rivalries, and I think we’ll have rivalries with teams in the state.
“Even though Mercer decided to go to the Southern Conference, for us, that’s a rivalry school in every sport we play. Hopefully, we can do that with them. We’re just excited to get in and now figure out how we can get to beating the best teams in the Big South.”
There’s still a lot left to do before the Owls kick off its 2015 season, but things are moving along nicely.
“We’re close to 1,500 season tickets already accounted for, and we haven’t even marketed yet,” Williams said. “We’re 24 months out, and that shows how this community is embracing Kennesaw State football. Coach Bohannon is doing an unbelievable job out there with his coaches. They’re getting a lot done. The word is out there. People want to talk about football, and that’s a great thing.”