“I just don’t know.” “There are so many question marks that affect us.” “We’re just leaving the conference decisions up to the big guys in charge.” “I really don’t know what it looks like.”
Just about everything is up in the air as the Power Five conferences prepare for looming realignment. The ACC begins sponsoring gymnastics in 2024, which will include Clemson, Pittsburgh, North Carolina, and N.C. State. BYU joins the Big 12 in 2024. Oklahoma—as well as the University of Texas—will join the SEC for the 2025 season. Finally, UCLA—plus the University of Southern California—will likely join the Big Ten in the summer of 2024, also for the 2025 season.
Those big moves, motivated by revenue sports and media deals, leave smaller gymnastics conferences with questions as well. What will the MRGC do without BYU? How will the remaining EAGL teams adjust after the ACC group departs?
The answer, in short, is no one really knows. The Big Ten deal is rumored to be far from certain, although The Athletic has reported as recently as April 28 that things are still on track. Beyond simply changing conferences, some coaches also remain unclear on how the burgeoning super conferences will handle things like conference championships.
The SEC has solidified plans for a new two-day SEC tournament beginning with the 2025 season to account for the soon-to-be nine-team conference. Still, unconfirmed rumors have flown about additional SEC schools beginning to sponsor gymnastics, which would swell gymnastics competition in the conference further.
To Auburn head coach Jeff Graba, adding Oklahoma to the ranks is an unequivocal good as far as the level of competition in the conference and for the sport generally, since the six-time overall, two-time defending champion Sooners will now be an accessible part of the SEC Network’s Friday Night Heights broadcasts.
He does have concerns about a lack of rest in the SEC’s grueling schedule, though, and is worried about the general direction of the NCAA on the whole. “I’m not in charge of that, thank goodness.”
While the SEC has a clear plan, the addition of UCLA to the Big Ten’s ranks makes championship math challenging.
“I don’t know what you do with 11. It’s not a happy number as far as any type of round robin or any type of bracketing. So I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” Maryland head coach Brett Nelligan said.
He and Penn State’s Sarah Shire Brown reiterated that nothing in the Big Ten is finalized. The 10 current coaches have thrown ideas around, but no one is sure what the final plans will look like.
“Whether it’s a multiple-day event or whether it’s a qualification round…I don’t really know what it looks like,” Brown said. Her focus is more on continued support for every team in the conference. She hopes that UCLA head coach Janelle McDonald might bring new ideas to the fold from the Pac-12. Brown emphasized that every coach in the conference makes decisions together, so having a fresh perspective in the mix is a positive.
Nelligan, who was with Maryland when it moved from the ACC to the Big Ten in 2014, has unique perspective on the changes. He saw Maryland gymnastics open up to a wider array of recruits with that move, as well as increased opportunities for his student-athletes. He notes that the addition of UCLA makes the Big Ten a coast-to-coast brand and will financially benefit programs.
Brown, too, sees big positives, with increased competition and increased opportunities for travel.
The inaugural ACC season is approaching with more immediacy. Clemson will begin its historic first season concurrent with the conference in 2024, as will Pittsburgh’s renewed program. The Panthers have made big investments in gymnastics, from the new Victory Heights facility to hiring Casey Jo MacPherson to lead Pitt into its ACC era.
MacPherson has her eyes set on making Pitt a contender for the conference title, and is “so excited” to be part of the inaugural ACC season in the conference. The higher-profile championship meet is a draw for gymnasts, too.
“We get to watch all of the other sports have their ACC champs, and it would just be fun to feel involved in that,” Hallie Copperwheat said.
With Pitt, North Carolina, and N.C. State leaving, the EAGL will be left with five teams: George Washington, LIU, New Hampshire, Temple, and Towson.
The Big 12 is looking at immediate changes as well. Before Oklahoma departs in 2025, BYU joins its ranks for the 2024 season, marking one year with five teams for the conference. West Virginia’s Jason Butts is excited to bring the historically strong Cougars program into the fold.
“I’m kind of hoping that we see even more realignment. I would love to add more teams that have gymnastics to the conference,” he said. Still, with so much up in the air, he’s focusing on making his program the best it can be, regardless of what decisions are made above his head at the conference level.
BYU is leaving the four-team MRGC, with just Boise State, Southern Utah, and Utah State remaining in the conference. The MRGC is an independent group, whose universities’ primary conferences do not sponsor gymnastics. Boise State and Utah State both primarily belong to the Mountain West Conference while Southern Utah is a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
Thunderbird head coach Scotty Bauman has always appreciated the parity and level of competition in the MRGC, which is the strongest group of mid-majors in college gymnastics. “Hopefully we’ll be able to keep something like that together,” he said, while wondering if the Mountain West would consider sponsoring gymnastics and bringing Southern Utah in as an associate member.
“We do need to start worrying about it,” Bauman said.
That seems to be the general consensus among head coaches: Everything is out of their control and they need to focus on their own programs, but realignment has to be on their minds.
In short, don’t expect this summer to be a quiet one.
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Article by Emily Minehart, with additional reporting by Tara Graeve, Savanna Whitten, and Alyssa VanAuker
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The $8 billion media deal pretty much solidified the USC and UCLA move to the Big Ten. Most Big Ten insiders in other sports say the only questions remaining are (1) if other schools will eventually join them and (2) what the new pod or division format will look like.
Maybe with the UCLA move, other gym news sources and fans will actually start to give the Big Ten some respect in gymnastics. College Gym News is the only one that does right now — thank you!