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A&T athletics director Earl Hilton during the announcement that the university is leaving the MEAC for the Big South Conference.

GREENSBORO — The courtship that became today’s marriage of N.C. A&T and the Big South Conference began in the summer of 2019.

That’s when the Big South approached N.C. A&T officials to gauge the Aggies’ interest in leaving the MEAC. But the process of changing athletics conferences started much earlier for A&T with a vision, and it would culminate with research, teamwork and ultimately A&T deciding what it wants to be.

Five years ago, Chancellor Harold Martin said the A&T Board of Trustees began “looking for ways to strategically think about this institution as it continues to grow and enhance its reputation as a highly regarded doctoral research land-grant institution. Athletics, which has always been an important aspect of North Carolina A&T State University, became an important part of that conversation.”

Martin said he asked athletics director Earl Hilton, “working with a small group of constituents of our university, to begin to explore the role of athletics at North Carolina A&T.”

In July 2019 at an annual retreat with the board of trustees, Martin said, “we had a very enlightening conversation” about the direction of the athletics program. The board appointed an Athletics Assessment Committee, Martin said, to “take an increasingly more intense deep dive and assessment of athletics and make an incredible decision about the future of athletics at North Carolina A&T State University.”

That 11-person committee did “intensive work” and voted unanimously to recommend leaving the MEAC to join the Big South. A&T trustees approved that recommendation today by a 12-1 vote, severing the university’s relationship with the MEAC effective June 30, 2021, and beginning a new chapter as a Big South member July 1, 2021.

It wasn’t an easy decision. As Martin noted, A&T was a founding member of the MEAC in 1970 “and has always been a proud member of the MEAC.”

The committee that made the decision to leave the MEAC was chaired by A&T alumnus Timothy King, a retired vice president of Dow Chemical Co. and a trustee since 2015.

“We looked at eight to 10 conferences and 14 attributes,” King said, including some FBS conferences. Among those attributes were “graduation rate, APR (Academic Progress rate for athletics), size of institution in terms of enrollment, (average student) GPA, athletics budget, those types of things. We compared and contrasted A&T vs. (potential conferences), then we did a very deep dive of A&T vs. the MEAC schools. Based on that data and assessment … it became very clear as to what the decision should be.”

While the committee was looking at A&T’s athletics future, the Big South was looking at the Aggies, approaching the university during the summer of 2019, said Kyle Kallander, commissioner of the Big South since 1996.

The league has taken a proactive approach to membership in recent years, offsetting the losses of VMI (2014), Coastal Carolina (2016) and Liberty (2017), as well as the departure of Presbyterian at the end of this school year, by adding former MEAC school Hampton and USC-Upstate for all sports in 2018 and picking up Monmouth (2014), Kennesaw State (2015) and North Alabama (2019) as football-only members. A&T essentially replaces Presbyterian, which decided to move its football program to the non-scholarship Pioneer League.

Once the Big South reached out to the Aggies, “We then began to have some conversations with Chancellor Martin,” Kallander said. “That’s when we began to do our research. We scheduled a campus visit this past fall. …

“We were very impressed with North Carolina A&T State University. We were impressed with the university, No. 1, with all the great things that are happening here on campus, from an academic standpoint, a growth standpoint, strong leadership. That peaked our interest. Looking at the athletic success — we knew about the football success, but we found out more about the overall athletics success and the leadership there — and were impressed with that as well.”

In November 2019, the Big South formally voted at its board meeting to invite N.C. A&T to join the conference. The marriage became official today.

“When we have great leaders like Chancellor Martin and Earl Hilton now sitting at the table, that just makes us better,” Kallander said. “And it really helps us from the standpoint of their reputation, their history, their success in football and other sports.”

For A&T, this may be the most significant move in the history of Aggies athletics, but it probably won’t be the last.

“We’ve talked about being an aspirational institution,” King said. “We are continuously looking at where we can and should improve. If you were to ask me where we’ll be in 10 years I can’t answer that, but I believe we have to continue to reassess where we are and where we want to be.”

Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034, and follow @JoeSireraNR on Twitter.

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