WAC makes its move to expand, SLC looking for prospects
Jim Gazzolo, Special to the American Press
It’s official, the WAC is back.
And the Southland Conference, it is taking a back seat.
What had been rumored for the better part of a month came to life Thursday when four Texas schools bolted the Southland for the Western Athletic Conference.
The WAC, void of football since 2012, is planning to bring the sport back with a lot of help from new friends in Texas. Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian, Lamar and Stephen F. Austin made the official announcement in Houston at the NRG Center. Southern Utah of the Big Sky Conference will also be a new member of the league which plans to start Football Championship Subdivision play in 2022.
The WAC said it’s eyeing a return to the Football Bowl Subdivision within a decade. New Mexico State is the league’s lone member that plays at that level. The Aggies are an independent in the FBS.
At first, the plan for the four Texas schools was to leave the Southland in July of 2022. However, the timing was changed over the last week with more than a subtle push from the remaining SLC schools. Central Arkansas is expected to leave the conference as well, reportedly moving to the Atlantic Sun.
“Our timing was expatiated,” WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said of the announcement.
Still, he sounded like the proud papa of a fresh litter as he made his announcement.
“This is the most significant and most meaningful announcement we have ever had,” said Hurd. “This is an historic announcement for the conference. This significantly strengthens the WAC brand. It also positions us for future growth.”
As for the SLC, the news was far from shocking but still stings.
“Throughout 2020, some Southland Conference member institutions have actively considered opportunities elsewhere, and that will lead to league realignment in the coming year,” SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett said in a statement. “We fully understand the value they bring to another association, and we wish them success and more of the accolades they realized during their long-standing membership here.”
The WAC, which used to be a relatively big name in college football, will consist of six Texas schools, more than any other Division I conference in the nation. It takes some thunder out of the Southland, particularly the loss of Sam Houston State, which has won 99 games over the past decade, second most in the FCS.
“This will really be a big boost to our football brand,” Hurd said.
It is expected the SLC will be looking to add football-playing schools. The eight-team league is left with six football schools, with four of them in Louisiana. Six is the NCAA minimum number of schools a football conference can have to get an automatic berth in the FCS playoffs.
“We have to bring in schools that play football,” McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel said. “But we have to bring in the right institutions that will allow our league to grow and want to be a part of our building.”
He said McNeese is committed and happy with the SLC at the moment, a sentiment that was backed up by Athletic Director and men’s head basketball coach Heath Schroyer.
“We’re excited to be a part of the future of the Southland Conference,” Schroyer said in a statement. “This league is more united now than it’s ever been. This is a great opportunity to build on what we have in this conference, both academically and athletically, and to rebrand and recreate ourselves.”
According to sources, the Southland recently reached out to West Florida, an up-and-coming Division II program, about joining the league. However, the school said it did not want to move up at this time, but the door might be left open.
The SLC said it would prefer to go after other Division I institutions rather than have too many schools moving up a level to join. That is why Schroyer and others have talked about rebranding and maybe renaming the league.
To that end, the SLC recently teamed with Eastman & Beaudine, Inc., an executive search and athletics consulting services, to assist the league’s presidential board of directors in its plan to review the future alignment of the association, including formulating a process to examine regional membership possibilities.
“With a primary focus on our student-athletes and continuing to meet championship expectations, there has been an extraordinary show of unity among our campus leaders, and a recognition that change is good,” read a statement from the SLC. “A reimagined Southland configuration with new regional partner universities is exciting, and our membership is confidently working toward an outstanding outcome.”