In the FCS Huddle: Monmouth hopes to grow in Big South

Monmouth University football coach Kevin Callahan is hoping his program can become a "north star" within the next few years.

Not necessarily because the north star shines the brightest (although Callahan wouldn't mind his program being the best and brightest in the FCS landscape), but more for geographical reasons. Monmouth will quite literally be the north star in the Big South Conference.

After Monmouth athletics made the decision to leave the Northeast Conference to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (which doesn't include football), the future of the football team got a little blurry. The departure from the Northeast Conference left things in a bit of a limbo.

The Monmouth athletic department pushed for a bid to rejoin the NEC as an associate football member, but was denied. So while most other Monmouth sports are being fielded in 2013 by the MAAC, football remains an independent program until 2014.

And starting next season, Monmouth will be a member of the Big South - seen as somewhat of a geographical conundrum to some. But Callahan doesn't really see it that way. He envisions the move to the Big South as a great opportunity.

"It's something that we're very excited about to make the move to fully funded scholarship football," Callahan said Saturday after the Hawks dropped a 28-25 loss at home to 22nd-ranked Lehigh.

"It's a big step for Monmouth, it's a big step for our football program, and we're excited about that. With that move comes new facilities, additional resources in the way of athletic scholarships that will move us over the 40 mark and put us in a position to, I think, compete at a higher level."

The Hawks got an early preview of their competition last weekend when they played at Liberty, which turned into a 45-15 loss. But Callahan couldn't say enough about the football environment his team was able to experience, and said he looks forward to many more games like that one when his team joins the Big South.

Callahan added that while his team will be traveling to the south for some of its competition next season and in the seasons beyond, he thinks it will be a good opportunity for some of the other programs to head north and experience what will be completely new facilities by this time next year.

"It helps us expand our recruiting footprint geographically," Callahan said. "But when we have an opportunity to play non-conference games, we will continue to play teams from the Patriot League, the Ivy League and Colonial (Athletic Association). So we're still going to have a Northeast folder to our schedule, but we'll be a Big South Conference member."

Monmouth might have to raise its play next year. The Hawks are 0-3 this season after Lehigh (2-0) used everything it had to hold them off. Mountain Hawks receiver Lee Kurfis went over 200 yards receiving (211 total in this game) and scored two touchdowns for the second straight game. Quarterback Brandon Bialkowski torched the Monmouth secondary for 375 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.

A blocked punt by Monmouth actually helped Lehigh, as the Mountain Hawks gained possession of the ball and took it for a first down that set up Bialkowski's 40-yard TD pass to Kurfis to make it 28-25 with 10:02 remaining to play.

For Monmouth, Brandon Hill was 29-of-41 for 316 yards and one touchdown, and Julian Hayes and Kwabena Assante both rushed for over 100 yards.

Lehigh, in Bethlehem, Pa., is much closer to Monmouth than the Hawks' future rivals in the Big South. Being able to maintain natural geographic rivals is still important to Callahan and the program, which can be done with non- conference opponents.

The situation itself has been done before. Remember, Stony Brook just departed the Big South at the end of the 2012-13 school year to join the Colonial Athletic Association in football.

The Seawolves and coach Chuck Priore know exactly what it feels like to be geographically isolated from the nucleus of the conference.

"There were certain challenges that we had in the past playing in the Big South," Priore said Monday. "The one good thing was we flew everywhere, so we didn't have to worry about getting over the George Washington Bridge.

"I think from a recruiting perspective, I know in our first year announcing we would be in the CAA, our recruiting has changed a little bit. We've got some more interest from local people who are excited about playing in the CAA and also being able to play the rivalry schools we'll be able to develop."

Some of the things Priore said were challenges that he never even noticed until his team played in-conference foe Rhode Island last weekend was the ability for his program's cheerleaders, band and fans to travel to away games. That could never happen on a weekly basis with his team flying down to the Carolinas or Virginia.

For the first time, Stony Brook can develop natural rivals in the CAA with general proximity to its campus on Long Island, N.Y.

Monmouth will face that problem as well, but that doesn't worry Callahan. He's kept an eye on Priore's progress throughout the years and understands the blueprint for success as a northern team in the Big South.

"We're very conscious of what their blueprint was and how they progressed through their first couple of years in the conference, and you can see that they made systematic progress each and every year," Callahan said. "The first year it was a little difficult for them, but every year they got stronger to the point where they were tied for the championship the last couple of years. They did an excellent job of growing in the Big South Conference."

And Callahan expects nothing less from his group than to go from that north star to a full-fledged guiding light.