RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia Commonwealth University went from "VCWho" to the biggest story of the 2011 NCAA basketball tournament when it made an improbable run to the Final Four.
Now the Rams are cashing in.
VCU and coach Shaka Smart hope a move to the Atlantic 10 will give them a chance to keep building off that momentum as up-and-comers on the national stage.
VCU announced Tuesday it is leaving the Colonial Athletic Association for the Atlantic 10, a basketball-driven league and big winner so far in offseason realignment.
"This is a tremendous opportunity that really represents the best interests of this institution," VCU president Michael Rao said at a news conference in the Seigel Center.
Butler, which beat VCU in the national semifinals last year, joined the A-10 on May 2. But while Butler won't come aboard until the 2013-14 school year, VCU is all-in come July 1.
For the Rams, the move is clearly about long-term growth and increased exposure.
They are forfeiting nearly $5 million in NCAA tournament money due them over the next six years under the guidelines of CAA bylaws, will pay the CAA a $250,000 exit fee and a $700,000 fee to join the A-10, interim athletic director David Benedict said.
But the key for VCU, Rao said, is they will retain the opportunity to compete for championships in the coming season, increase the visibility of the school and expect to be able to attract better athletes and better students with the step up in competition,
"Premier universities are premier across the board, and that includes athletics," Rao said. "We need to be willing, and we are certainly able, to compete at the very highest levels, and we look forward to doing that in the A-10."
He acknowledged that $5 million is a lot to walk away from, as is a conference tournament played just down the street from the university.
"The expected returns are far greater that the short-term losses," Rao said, and the increased expectations despite a move to a more competitive league are welcome.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," Rao said. "We play to win. We expect it win. We have been winning."
The Atlantic 10 began looking for potential new members as part of a long-term strategic plan adopted about 18 months ago, commissioner Bernadette McGlade said on a teleconference. She welcomed VCU as "a perfect fit for the Atlantic 10 Conference."
Butler and VCU will replace Temple, which will join the Big East in all sports other than football in 2013-14, and Charlotte, one of five teams joining Conference-USA.
Father Michael Graham, president of Xavier and chairman of the Atlantic 10's council of presidents, said the A-10 will continue to keep an eye on possible realignment developments elsewhere in the country to try and remain in the driver's seat going forward.
Smart did not attend the press conference, but said in a statement released by VCU that he's "extremely excited by the opportunity to join the Atlantic 10. It is a phenomenal league made up of programs with both rich traditions and recent track records of success."
VCU became the talk of the 2011 tournament when it was invited as an at-large entry. The Rams went from the First Four to the Final Four, but saw this year how fleeting a league's standing can be among members of the tournament selection committee.
The Rams won the CAA tournament again, beating regular season champ Drexel in the championship. The Dragons, despite 27 victories and a 19-game winning streak that ended in the title game, were then left out of the NCAA field and relegated to the NIT.
That scenario is far less likely to happen to a runner-up in the Atlantic 10.
Since 2000, the Atlantic 10 has received 20 at-large NCAA bids, the CAA four.
"I think that's just a microcosm," Benedict said of the disparity in at-large bids. "I think if you look at the CAA since we've been a member of it, that tells the story."
The Rams this year beat Wichita State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament and came within a missed 3-pointer of reaching the round of 16 again.
The move again places VCU in the same league as city rival Richmond, and Benedict said any assumptions that rivalries with CAA schools will die is incorrect. He said VCU already is in talks with Old Dominion, its chief CAA rival, for a long-term series.
Rao said he called CAA commissioner Tom Yeager Tuesday morning to tell him of the school's decision.
Yeager said on a teleconference later that he was disappointed, but moving on.
"Anytime someone leaves for something better, there's feelings that aren't particularly positive, but you know what? It comes with the territory," he said.
Especially, Yeager said, at a time when conference realignment talk is constant.
"We all recognize that we are in an unprecedented period of change in college athletics," he said. "There have been any number of decisions that have been made for all different kinds of reasons. Time will tell if they were good decisions or not."
He said the league continues having discussions about membership and growth, and potential new members, but said those talks will remain confidential.
The loss of one of its three top programs comes as a big blow to the CAA, which last week won a reprieve when George Mason, another of the big three, announced it is staying.
Old Dominion, the other team considering a change in affiliation, has not announced its plans. The school's board discussed the matter in a closed session Monday.