Southland headed for breakup, WAC defections would leave conference with six football schools
Jim Gazzolo, Special to the American Press
From Southland Strong to Southland so long.
In what will likely be known as the Texas Exodus, multiple sources and reports say four Texas schools will soon announce their exit from the SLC starting in July of 2022.
Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian are expected to make the news official on Thursday that they are leaving for the repackaged Western Athletic Conference. The four Southland schools will break the news at NRG Stadium in Houston, according to sources.
It will mark the return of football to the WAC, which hasn’t had the sport since 2012. The WAC will play at the Football Championship Subdivision for now, which is the same level as the SLC. Also expected to join is Southern Utah from the Big Sky.
The WAC, which used to be a big part of the college football landscape, could be looking to make a return to the top level of the sport. It has been reported the plan is to try and be at the Football Bowl Subdivision level within a decade.
The WAC is comprised of California Baptist, Chicago State, Dixie State, Grand Canyon University, New Mexico State, Seattle University, Tarleton State, Texas-Rio Grande Valley and Utah State. New Mexico State of the WAC plays in the FBS as an independent.
Two other schools might be approached from either the FCS or Division II level by the WAC. McNeese State officials have said they are not one of those programs.
“We are happy being in the Southland at this moment,” McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel said.
Central Arkansas is also expected to be leaving, though no announcement is pending. The school is reportedly heading to the Atlantic Sun Conference.
That would leave the SLC with six football playing schools, which is the minimum a league can have and receive an automatic bid to the postseason. Four of those six schools (McNeese, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana and Nicholls State) would be in Louisiana with two (Houston Baptist and Incarnate Word) in Texas. The Southland also has Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and New Orleans as non-football playing members.
“Those schools are doing what they believe is in the best interests of their institutions,” Burckel said. “We are going to do what is in the best interests of McNeese.”
While Southland officials would not confirm or deny the expected exit, SLC Commissioner Tom Burnett said the SLC is always in talks concerning the current game of musical chairs being played out when it comes to college sports and the changing conferences.
“We all understand what is going on and how this is ever moving,” Burnett said. “We are always taking about future plans and our members have been very active in talking about the next steps for us.
“History of this league has seen a lot of changes and a lot of teams coming and going. If it comes to that, we will expect to have the same type of success at attracting new schools as we have in the past.
“Let’s just see what happens.”
Southland athletic directors met last week to discuss various topics, with the shifting of teams a main subject.
Sources say adding teams from other FCS conferences or inviting schools from the D-II level are options, as is the renaming of the Southland itself to give the league a fresh identity.
“I look at this as a great opportunity for our conference to rebrand itself and recreate itself,” said McNeese Athletic Director Heath Schroyer, who doubles as the school’s men’s basketball coach. “Everyone in college athletics has to do what is right for their situations. We are going to do the same thing for ourselves.
“I believe the brightest days of our conference and our university are ahead of us.”
The loss of Sam Houston State and Lamar is particularly harmful to McNeese because they are two of the better rivals the Cowboys have. They draw the better crowds, which is something McNeese needs for its athletic funds. However, both could become part of an upgraded nonconference schedule.
“If that were to happen, it would make sense to try and get them on the schedule,” Schroyer said. “If you are going to take the next step then you have to have a schedule that fits that. It is the next step for all of our programs, to schedule games that fans want to see.”
The Southland’s offices are in Frisco, Texas, although that could be on the move. If so, would Lake Charles be an option?
“I can’t think of a better place,” Burckel said.
The real issue is which schools could join a new-look Southland.
“We have to bring in schools that play football,” said Burckel. “But we have to bring in the right institutions that will allow our league to grow and want to be a part of what we are building.”
Sam Houston State has been a national championship contender in recent years, winning 99 games over the last decade, second most in FCS to powerhouse North Dakota State. Both Lamar and SFA have solid basketball histories, meaning the Southland will be losing high-profile programs on the national level.
“I don’t have any concerns about that or dipping below six football schools,” said Schroyer. “I have no doubt that change is good. As a league we get the chance to go in a new direction, one that is right for us.”
Whatever that direction is, it won’t be heading toward Texas quite as much.