Elon University officials found an appealing blend of history, geography and exposure, while the Colonial Athletic Association was attracted to an upward trajectory and location.
Both sides consummated a six-week courtship with official word Thursday that Elon would join the CAA, beginning with the 2014-15 school year.
"We believe that this is a terrific institutional fit," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said, "not just athletically, but also academically and (for) other institutional initiatives."
Elon, a 5,200-student private school located just east of Greensboro, leaves the Southern Conference after a decade to become the CAA's 10th all-sports member.
"It just feels like a great decision for the university," Elon president Leo Lambert said. "Not only for the department of athletics, but for Elon University as a whole."
Lambert pointed out that 56 percent of Elon's student body is from what he called the CAA's "footprint" — including the mid-Atlantic and northeastern corridor. Twelve percent of next year's freshman class, he said, is from Massachusetts alone.
Elon leaves one conference in upheaval for another. The CAA has lost marquee basketball programs VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason, as well as Georgia State, in the past year. ODU and Georgia State left as their football programs transition to Football Bowl Subdivision conferences.
The Southern Conference lost Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in FBS football moves, and traditional basketball powers Davidson and the College of Charleston. College of Charleston joins the CAA as an all-sports member beginning next school year.
"What conference is not subject to change right now," Elon athletic director Dave Blank asked rhetorically. "In our analysis, in our decision, we were looking strictly at what we thought was best for our institution, and we had to make that decision, not knowing what the Southern Conference is going to look like and not knowing what the Colonial Athletic Association is going to look like, but knowing that they're both going to survive, they're both good conferences, they both have great institutions involved with them.
"Not everybody's going to leave both conferences, so we thought it was more important to say: Where do we fit best? How do we serve our university and our student-athletes, and that was an important part of our decision."
Elon sponsors 16 sports — seven for men, nine for women. The Phoenix traditionally has a strong baseball program. Men's basketball just completed its most successful season, going 21-12 and winning the SoCon's North Division title.
Elon has won 18 Southern Conference regular season and tournament championships. Seventeen teams and individuals have made NCAA postseason appearances.
Elon plays FCS-level football — the Phoenix was 3-8 last season — and will bring CAA football membership to 12 when it joins in 2014. Barring further change, the league is projected to have five football-playing, full-time members (W&M, JMU, Delaware, Towson and Elon) and seven football-only members (Richmond, Villanova, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Albany and Stony Brook).
"We're fortunate to have a university that is so well positioned to be able to receive the flattery of a conference like the Colonial to be invited to join," Blank said, "and I know that doesn't happen without an institutional fit."
Elon was a Big South member from 1999-2003 before joining the Southern. The school changed its nickname from the Fighting Christians to the Phoenix in 2000, a nod to the fire that burned most of the campus in 1923.
"They're a school that seems to have grown, academically as well as athletically," W&M athletic director Terry Driscoll said.
Driscoll said that he's had several conversations with Blank in recent years, in unsuccessful attempts to set up a home-and-home football series. But he's enjoyed their discussions and likes what he's heard about Elon.
"It's a good school, academically," Driscoll said. "Within the Southern Conference, they're a program that's recognized as 'on the move,' you could say. It seems to be a good fit for us."
Elon gives the CAA five schools in Virginia and the Carolinas, which Yeager said aids scheduling and reduces missed class time and travel expenses.
He said the conference will discuss membership and expansion. He believes that there's stability among the present membership for the time being, but thinks realignment and conference movement will continue.
"I think we're always looking, collectively, and now Elon is part of the discussion, about what scenarios can make us better," Yeager said. "What other schools fit the profile that we want to have? What do they bring to the table? If you're looking at a partner, you want to have somebody that comes in and contributes to the collective good.
"We've got no magic number, no ceiling limit. I think when we get to the point of consensus agreement that they'd be a good addition, for whatever reason, and there's give and take among the group, we'll continue to expand. I think we always have a view toward efficiency, rivalries, things that make our programs more healthy, rather than put additional stress on them."