Jim Gazzolo column: Grant keeps SLC afloat

Published 1:34 pm Thursday, March 28, 2024

When Chris Grant became the captain of the Southland Conference, he took over what resembled the Titanic.

The good ship SLC had already hit the iceberg and was talking on water, and there was panic from New Orleans to Corpus Christi, Texas.

Five schools, all solid football members, found what they believed were their lifeboats and were paddling further and farther away as the SLC listed in the cold waters of a changing college athletic world.

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Even the most solid and longtime crew member McNeese State was looking to jump ship.

That all was happening as Grant was trying to figure out the fastest path from the bridge to the head. It sure seemed like his only course was by way of the poop deck, that’s for sure.

In the spring of 2022, when Grant officially became the eighth commissioner of the Southland, no schools were looking to book passage on the ship. It was easy to bash the league, which was done a few times from this column space to be completely honest.

That has all changed thanks in large part to Grant and his first mate, McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer.

The duo joined forces to at least patch the leaks quickly enough to keep the Southland afloat before Grant looked to make the much-needed major improvements.

Since the new commissioner has taken over the helm, new schools seem willing to jump on board, or former ones have raced back on deck.

Since April 5, 2022, Grant’s first official day on the job, not one school has left in the ever-changing landscape of conference realignment. One — Texas A&M-Commerce — joined, which in fairness, was heading on board before Grant took over. But Grant was able to keep Commerce from breaking its commitment.

Then he cut the deal to keep McNeese from swimming over to the Western Athletic Conference, a move that didn’t sit well with the coaches of the league but had to be done.

Grant understood that his sinking conference first needed to survive before it could thrive.

Incarnate Word followed and stayed put while Lamar, one of those who had left, came back after one year. While it still wasn’t running on all engines, at least the conference wasn’t at the bottom of the college sports ocean.

On Tuesday, Grant officially welcomed a new member, Texas-Rio Grande Valley, taking from the WAC which had started the problems by grabbing four from the Southland three years ago.

“This is big for us,” Grant said last week while in Salt Lake City for McNeese’s NCAA game. “And I’m not done.”

Suddenly teams aren’t swimming away from the Southland but rather riding a new wave toward the league.

Since Grant’s arrival the disaster that would have led to the league’s demise has been avoided. That, however, is just the beginning Grant, says.

More additions are being talked about.

“My phone is ringing and I’m making calls too,” Grant said.

One of those schools rumored to be thinking of coming back is Stephen F. Austin, which under former A.D. Ryan Ivy, who was once an assistant A.D. at McNeese, was a leader in the mass exit of 2021.

Unnamed sources have told the American Press the sides are in negotiations but, without an A.D. and president, it will be a longer process.

And that might not be the end either.

Grant has said he is willing to talk with other schools interested and hinted he might be doing so now.

“We are never going to be finishing at looking to make our league better,” he said. “We want the right schools that are within our geographic footprint. But they have to be the right fit.”

That could include schools like Tarleton State as a newcomer or maybe reunions with the likes of onetime members Texas-Arlington or Abilene Christian.

Grant has not only saved his own ship but in the process appears to be helping to sink the WAC, which would give the Southland the last laugh.

The commissioner has done all this while finding smooth waters for his members who two years ago didn’t know where they were headed.

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