Analysis: SLC defections leave questions, opportunities
Jim Gazzola, Special to the American Press
Paul Anka was wrong, breaking up isn’t hard to do.
In fact, when it comes to college athletics it’s as simple as signing on the dotted line.
With the stroke of a pen, a quartet of Texas schools brushed aside the Southland Conference without as much as leaving a goodbye note.
Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian turned their wandering eyes to the Western Athletic Conference in a move that shakes up the Football Championship Subdivision landscape.
It also sends the Southland into the unknown, searching for new partners and maybe even a new identity. The league also has more than a little ego on its face.
How this came about is pretty simple. It wasn’t about last fall when the schools debated and battled over when to play football. That was more of a symptom rather than the disease.
The four schools, along with Central Arkansas, which is leaving for the Atlantic Sun, believe they have outgrown the Southland Conference. Plain and simple.
“The brand equity and recognition of the (WAC) remains strong and will benefit us regionally and nationally as we attract both students and student-athletes,” said Dr. Phil Schubert, ACU president.
He also made mention that the four were more committed to spending for good athletic programs, a less than subtle shot at the Louisiana schools.
No question it was a tough week for the old Southland, which has seen more than its share of change over the years. But this one just seems like a slap in the face.
And this also seemed personal. Maybe that’s why the remaining eight in the SLC voted unanimously to give the five their ticket out of the league a year before they had wanted.
“If they don’t want to be here then we don’t want them,” McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer said.
Money, the belief in a brighter football future and better national basketball attention all added to the reasons for leaving. The Texas Four believe the WAC could become a power mid-major and maybe get more than just the one automatic berth in future NCAA basketball tournaments.
That wasn’t about to happen in the Southland.
So now what about those left in the SLC, and McNeese especially?
First they must accept they are at the crossroads of their league and the Cowboys’ athletic program. It’s a tough time for McNeese, coming off two hurricanes, stuck in a world pandemic and now the biggest fish in a quickly sinking pond.
As college sports continue to change, McNeese is once again looking like it might get left behind.
The Cowboys have seen Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech, LA-Monroe along with a host of others move up and out of the Southland with different levels of success. Only Monroe seems to have really stumbled.
But this is a different McNeese administration, one that talks about better times to come and seems to have a plan. If nothing else, Schroyer and president Dr. Daryl Burckel speak like they are ready to take over the role as leading voice within the Southland.
Somebody needs to be.
And while rebranding the SLC would not hurt, you can’t put a band-aid over a gaping cut and claim you are cured. The league needs an influx of football-playing schools with some regional connections that make the fan base excited to spend their money on games. Houston Baptist doesn’t cut it.
The Burckel-Schroyer duo, along with others now in place at McNeese, know this, but what they do about it is a bigger question.
Burckel is on record as saying the school is happy being a part of the Southland “for the moment.”
That is hardly a ringing endorsement for the league or commissioner Tom Burnett, who also always seemed to favor Texas over Louisiana. That may be more perception over reality, but he does live in Texas. A change of home address for the league offices might start changing that perception.
Along with rebranding and a move of the home office out of the Dallas area, the SLC could maybe use some new leadership. Looking forward is much better than trying to relive the past.
This may end up being the perfect wake-up call for the Southland and McNeese, who at least for the moment have their futures tied at the hip. If they are to move forward, both must find a way to build their own brands so that others will want to join.
More importantly for McNeese, they also have to be ready to abandon ship if needed and find another league as a lifeboat if the time comes for a move.
Nobody knows what the future has in store for college athletics or when the game of conference musical chairs will finally end. But it’s important McNeese, above all else, decides where it ends up.
The Cowboys can’t afford to be left behind.