A Look Into the New AAC

PHOTO: @American_BSB

In case you haven’t heard, the Charlotte 49ers are heading to the American Athletic Conference.  This is certainly exciting news for Niner Nation. Chancellor Sharon Gaber called this a ‘transformative milestone” for the University. We certainly feel the same. There will be added TV revenue, TV exposure, an in-state rivalry, and a chance to rekindle some of the heated battles we had with several of our original C-USA brethren. The exact date of the move has not been officially determined yet, but we can assume it will happen within the next two seasons.

So what does all this look like from a baseball perspective? The new look AAC will feature 14 schools but only 10 of the 14 play baseball. For whatever reasons, Temple, North Texas, SMU, nor Tulsa have baseball programs. Temple played baseball in the A-10 with Charlotte but stopped playing baseball in 2014. Navy is a football only member and plays their baseball in the Patriot League.

The ten team league will consist of ECU, Tulane, USF, Wichita State and Memphis with the newcomers of Charlotte, FAU, Rice, UTSA, and UAB.  That is a pretty solid baseball league. Three of the teams played in the NCAA Tournament last season, and seven of the teams were in the top 100 in RPI at the end of the year.

Charlotte baseball has a long history with all of these programs through the various conference shuffling over the years. That is one of the main reasons that we feel like this conference is a good fit for us, the history with like-minded institutions. The programs in the conference have been very successful on the diamond, combining for 29 Super Regional appearances, 15 trips to Omaha, and two National Titles.

The AAC Baseball Tournament had all 8 league teams participate in a double elimination tournament similar to the 8-team format that C-USA uses. The Tournament has been held at the Spring Training home of the Philadelphia Phillies, BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater, FL since the league formed in 2014. We assume only the top 8 will make the tourney each season. Nothing against, Ruston, Biloxi, or Hattiesburg, but Clearwater sounds like a fun road trip. We assume all teams will play each other every regular season for 27 conference games over 9 weekends.

Let’s take a look at the baseball programs that will make up the future AAC:

We’ll start with the new in-state conference rival, East Carolina. The Niners have gotten a good look at the Pirates over the past two seasons, playing them in a series at the Hayes last year, and then travelling east for a series last season. Charlotte also went head to head with the Pirates in a winners bracket game in the Greenville Regional last season. They are a program with six Super Regional appearances and play in a very nice facility, Clark-Leclair Stadium. Most recently, the Pirates have won the AAC in 2019 & 2021.  ECU has a significant investment in baseball and their baseball facilities will be among the top in the league. Fans of both programs will certainly look forward to having drivable road weekends every other year.

The history between the 49ers and the Pirates goes back to the very 1st season of 49ers baseball in 1979. The two teams have played 38 times over the years and the Pirates have a decided advantage. ECU and Charlotte have shared a conference twice over their history. ECU joined C-USA in baseball for the 2002 season and played the 49ers for 4 seasons. The two schools once again shared C-USA when Charlotte re-joined in 2014. ECU then left C-USA for the AAC in 2015.

Tulane has a very strong baseball tradition with over 120 years of history. The Green Wave have been to three Super Regionals and have made two trips to the College World Series over the past 20 seasons. Their most recent trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 2016.

Tulane plays in a 5000 seat ballpark on-campus, Turchin Stadium. The stadium is a pro style park and is referred to as “the crown jewel of Tulane University’s athletic facilities.” Tulane has certainly invested in baseball and their facilities appear to be near the top of the league. Being located in New Orleans gives 49er fans an exciting option for a weekend road trip.

Tulane and Charlotte have shared a conference for 15 seasons over the years.  Charlotte joined the Metro Conference in 1992 and the two played each other for three seasons there before becoming charter members of Conference USA. The Niners played the Green Wave for ten seasons to 2005, and then one season when Charlotte returned in 2014. Tulane then left for the AAC. Tulane won 4 conference titles in the time that the two shared conferences and the 49ers have faced Tulane 10 times in conference tournament games.

Wichita State has a great baseball program and was considered one of the elite baseball programs in the country throughout the 80s and 90s. Over that time they went to Omaha six times and won the National Championship in 1989. The Shockers have been to the NCAA Tournament 27 times with their most recent trip being in 2013. The Shockers joined the AAC in baseball for the 2018 season after spending nearly 70 years in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Wichita State plays their home games on campus at Eck Stadium (Wichita, Kansas). Eck Stadium has a capacity listed at 8153, making it the largest on campus facility in the AAC. The investment in baseball is strong at WSU and they have consistently been upgrading their facilities to compete with the best in the league.

Charlotte has only played Wichita State once in program history, but the two programs are certainly connected. Long time 49ers Head Coach Loren Hibbs came to Charlotte in 1993 after playing and coaching for the Shockers for 10 seasons. Hibbs led the 49ers program for 27 seasons, winning 819 games and making five NCAA Regionals.  He retired as the 49ers Head Coach in 2019 to return to Wichita State as Assistant Athletics Director for Baseball Operations and Player Development.

South Florida is another baseball program that Charlotte has a long history with dating back to season 1 in 1979. The 49ers played the Bulls in their 1st ever post-season game, the 1979 Sun Belt Tournament. Both schools were charter members of the Sun Belt Conference and shared the same conference in baseball from 1979 to 2005. They both left the Sun Belt for the Metro Conference in 1991, and then were charter members of Conference USA in 1995. USF left for the Big East (now the AAC) after 2005.

USF is the defending AAC Tournament Champions, earning their 14th NCAA Tournament bid last season. The Golden Bulls also won the Gainesville Regional last season to earn their first trip to the Super Regionals in program history.  They play their home games on campus in Tampa, Florida at USF Baseball Stadium that opened in 2011.

Memphis and Charlotte were charter members of Conference USA and they both played there from 1995 through 2005. The Tigers have played baseball for 108 years and have made the NCAA Tournament 6 times, with the most recent trip being in 2007. Memphis has an on campus, 2000 seat stadium, FedEx Park that will be undergoing some renovations in the near future. There has not been much recent success in Memphis, but with recent donations to the program, it appears that the investment in baseball is there.

Rice and Charlotte share a short history after Charlotte re-joined C-USA in 2013. Both programs will be leaving C-USA for the AAC.

The Owls have a great baseball history with 7 trips to the College World Series and 11 Super Regionals under their belt. They also won the 2003 National Championship under legendary coach Wayne Graham. Since Charlotte re-joined C-USA, Rice has struggled by their standards and have had 3 Head Coaches over that time period. Most recently, Rice hired former player Jose Cruz Jr to lead the program after the 2021 season.  Rice plays their home games on campus at 7,000 seat Reckling Park in Houston, Texas. Their facilities rank among the top in Conference USA.

Another successful program joining Charlotte in the move to the AAC is FAU. The only history the two programs have is their shared time in the most recent incarnation of Conference USA. The Owls have been very successful in recent history with 14 NCAA Tournament appearances. They have won 2 Conference USA Regular Season titles in the past 5 seasons most recently in 2019, when they last advanced to the Regionals.  FAU plays in a 2000 seat on-campus stadium in Boca Raton, Florida, FAU Baseball Stadium. Their facilities would rank in the bottom half of Conference USA but they have been successful nonetheless with long time coach John McCormack.

The AAC will be the third conference that both UAB and Charlotte have shared over the years.  The history between the two programs goes back to the first season of Charlotte baseball, when the 2 teams played in 1979. The 49ers won their first Tournament game in program history, beating UAB in the 1981 Sun Belt Tournament. The two shared a conference in the Sun Belt until 1992, then both were charter members of Conference USA in 1995.  UAB has been in C-USA since the founding of the conference.

UAB has two NCAA Tournament Appearances in their program history, the most recent being in 2012.  The Blazers have two home fields that they can host games. Young Memorial Field is a 1000 seat ballpark on campus where the Blazers play some home games. Other home games are played at 8500 seat Regions Field, Home of the Double-A Birmingham Barons. It appears the Blazers will continue to use two homes and there are plans for a baseball/softball clubhouse to be built on campus in the near future.

UTSA was one of the teams that joined C-USA when Charlotte re-joined the league in 2013.  The two have shared a league ever since.  The Roadrunners previously played in the Southland Conference and the Western Athletic Conference before joining C-USA.  They have 3 NCAA Tournament appearances with the most recent being in 2013 as a member of the WAC.

The Roadrunners play in an on campus, 800 seat field, Roadrunner Field. The facilities would rank in the lower half of C-USA. San Antonio will be the longest conference road trip that the 49ers will make and they will likely make the trip every other year.

Finally, we take a look in the mirror.  What does Charlotte bring to the AAC?  The 49ers are coming off a historic season, winning the Conference USA Regular Season and playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years. The Niners spent several weeks in the Top 25 and were one of 20 finalists to host a Regional in 2021. The 2021 regional trip was the 6th for the 49ers program.

The conference affiliation history for the Niners started in 1979 in the Sun Belt. The Niners then joined the Metro Conference in 1992, where they won the Tourney in 1993, and the Regular Season titles in 1994 & 1995. Charlotte spent 10 seasons in the original Conference USA FROM 1996 TO 2005 before leaving for the Atlantic 10. In the A-10 the Niners won three A-10 Tournaments and five Regular Season titles in 8 seasons. Charlotte returned to Conference USA for the 2014 season.

The Niners call Hayes Stadium home on campus, with a capacity of 3000. While most of the 49ers home games are a played on campus, since 2015 Charlotte has played at least one game a year Uptown at the 10,000 seat Truist Park, home of the Triple A Charlotte Knights. Charlotte also had the honor of hosting the first baseball game at the new Single-A home of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers in 2021. The park holds roughly 5000 and is 25 minutes from campus.

Upgrades are in the works for Hayes Stadium with the intentions of hosting regionals in the near future. A few recent enhancements to the facilities include a new indoor practice facility that opened in 2018 and the 49ers were one of the first ballparks in C-USA to install Trackman at their stadium in 2021.

It certainly is an exciting time in Niner Nation and everyone is looking forward to the move. In the meantime, we have a few more seasons in C-USA left, so we might as well win a few more trophies. #9ATC  

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