Jim Gazzolo column: Second Southland honeymoon

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, August 31, 2023

The marriage between McNeese State and the Southland Conference, often strained in the past, continues to be on the mend.

The two took more vows Wednesday when they conducted a joint news conference to address the league’s decision to extend Southland’s basketball championships in Lake Charles through the year 2029.

Of course, that’s if McNeese stays in the league.

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The agreement, announced Tuesday by the league officially, didn’t make any new friends for probably either Commissioner Chris Grant or McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer. Or the McNeese basketball coaches for that matter.

“No, I didn’t get any calls of congratulations,” Cowgirls head basketball coach Lynn Kennedy said.

He, along with new Cowboys head coach Will Wade, wasn’t expecting any either.

“There were some concerns from people about a competitive advantage,” Grant said. “It is up to the league to neutralize those as best we can.”

The agreement did come at a cost to McNeese. Schroyer had to give up the baseball and softball championships over the next two seasons, with Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond earning those bids for next spring.

It was an easy and smart decision. While McNeese is good in both, neither sport moves the needle like an NCAA Tournament bid in basketball does.

“Basketball and March Madness is the biggest event there is,” said Schroyer. “To be able to host a part of it is a great opportunity for us and our community.”

Baseball, and perhaps even softball, will move to a format like two years ago when the top two seeds hosted tournaments with winners meeting for a title series. If that is the case, then Schroyer only gave up one year of each for three extra seasons of basketball.

And yes, it is a giant recruiting chip for McNeese’s basketball programs but it also puts pressure on the teams. Neither one made it to a tourney final last spring either.

The agreement is good for Lake Charles, a city still in recovery mode from the storms of 2020. Last spring’s tournament brought in roughly $3.6 million in economic impact to the region, according to the league. Those numbers should go up in the upcoming seasons with better marketing and hopefully better McNeese teams.

It is also a sign that the league, unlike before when it often seemed to put Lake Charles and McNeese in the shadows of the Texas schools, is focused on Southwest Louisiana like never before.

In a few weeks, the league will even host a Basketball Media Day in the area.

“Lake Charles is the heart of the Southland Conference,” Grant said. “We want to create a destination for our fans and you could not find a better one than Lake Charles. We want to develop this to become a focal point for our conference.”

If that is the case maybe it would have been nice to see somebody from the city on hand for the news conference, especially when you consider the Southland would not mind having at least a satellite office in Lake Charles.

With the league’s lease up in Feb. 2025 in Frisco, Texas, maybe the conference offices could even relocate to the city.

Grant would not comment on that, saying only that helping the area rebuild was a big part of that. Schroyer also says the tourneys will add to the rebuild.

“This community has been through a lot and deserves this,” Schroyer said. “Southwest Louisiana has been through a lot, for us to be able to bring $4- to $5 million a year here is great.”

While this idea was easily agreed upon by Southland presidents, the league’s ADs see it differently. That’s not McNeese’s problem.

McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel tried to make sure the league knew the Cowboys were on their side.

“We felt being a good cooperate partner it would be good to give up some of those other tournaments (to extend basketball),” Burckel said.

That is, of course, like giving up a salad for more pizza.

Since deciding to stay in the Southland less than two years ago, the McNeese has gotten a big bite out of the league’s pie.

Making it harder for the Cowboys to leave might be part of the strategy, but for right now it seems like good business for all.

McNeese is being rewarded for its recent investments in basketball, if the rest of the Southland is upset they can follow the Cowboys’ lead.

Or just wave goodbye if they leave.

Not all marriages last forever.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com