COMMENTARY: Should they stay or should they go? Change of scenery could bring benefits for McNeese
Jim Gazzolo, Special to the American Press
An idea that may have sounded completely wacky just months ago could prove to make the most sense for McNeese’s athletic future.
Last winter the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) fleeced the Southland of four of its football playing universities, restarting the sport in the once nationally relevant league.
In the process it left the future of the Southland in question, some might even say staggering the conference as the landscape of college athletics continues to evolve.
While McNeese officials say the right things as they stand with the league, there are also those wondering if now is not finally the time for the Cowboys to look out for themselves.
The question seems to be: Should McNeese go down with the ship or find a life boat?
“We are committed to helping make the Southland Conference be the best it can be and taking it to a new level,” said Athletic Director Heath Schroyer.
But he also says that his administration will do “what is in the best interest of Mc-Neese and its athletes both today and in the future.”
In other words, as President Dr. Daryl Burckel has said: “We are happy with the Southland at the moment.”
However, several sources have told the American Press that not only is Mc-Neese considering making a move in the future, there are those who would love to see them come aboard if they are looking for a new home. That includes the much talked about Western Athletic Conference.
While neither side is talking specifics, it is easy to read the road map that would lead McNeese to the WAC, joining the four former Southland schools from Texas — Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian — who bolted last year.
“I don’t talk on specific members,” said WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd recently. “Are we looking to expand? Maybe. We are always looking to the future, but we are not going to add teams just to add teams. We want to have the right fit.
“What is important is that the school fits what we are trying to do. I have a set of boxes that need to be checked off.”
Here are some facts: The WAC is made up of 13 teams, stretching from Seattle, Washington to Beaumont, Texas and up through Chicago. Eight of those schools play football, but only five are current Football Championship Subdivision qualifiers. New Mexico State is in the FBS and two teams, Dixie State and Tarleton State, are in the process of transferring up from Division II, which takes three years.
That means the WAC won’t have an automatic FCS playoff berth until 2024 as it takes six in the league to earn that spot. The current Southland has just six, meaning it can’t lose another team and keep its automatic qualifier.
“We would like to get a team that gets us to six in the FCS if we are going to add somebody,” said Hurd. “We would like to get there as soon as possible, but you just can’t add any school to get there.”
Hurd said he would love to get the conference to an even number. McNeese would fill both those holes, or in the commissioner’s words, would check off those boxes.
Hurd also wants to get to an even number of teams as the WAC will be divided into two divisions. Right now there are seven teams in the West and six in Texas. McNeese would even those numbers out.
The league wants to stay close in its divisional play.
“We want it to be bus rides,” said Hurd. “Geography is important to us. We want regional rivalries. That will make it easy for fans to travel to away games and follow their teams.”
McNeese has rivalries already with Lamar, Sam Houston and just played Tarleton last spring in the season opener. Rivalries are set and the bus could be gassed up for those road games.
Hurd said the league eventually wants to get to nine football playing schools for scheduling reasons at least. McNeese would help make that happen and give the WAC a sixth FCS qualifier.
Check and check.
“Before we can think about moving up to the FBC level we have to first establish ourselves as a solid FCS league,” said Hurd. “We are looking at what helps us do that. Yes, a school with a solid football tradition and that has had national success helps.”
This is not all about football either. This includes other sports that will help the league grow.
“We added the schools we did to improve competition in all sports,” said Hurd. “We feel we did that. We have increased our competition on all levels and we will still like to do that moving forward.”
McNeese’s baseball and softball teams just won Southland titles and received national attention while in the postseason.
That sounds like check mate.
None of this is to say McNeese is moving into the WAC tomorrow. This just goes to show that as the school’s brass look around at the changing world of college athletics McNeese has options. It would be crazy for Schroyer and his staff not to at least dip their toes in the water.
McNeese fans have been divided. Some want the Cowboys to stay put, live off the past and embrace the school’s traditions. Others want the school to explore its place in the college world, bring in new rivals and move all the way up to football’s top level.
There is a lot to consider for Schroyer as he enters his second year at the helm of Cowboy athletics. He is still rebuilding from the storms of 2020 and the fallout from the pandemic.
But for the first time it seems like McNeese is serious about looking at its options.
“College sports is changing and we have to position ourselves for the future,” said Schroyer.
Maybe a change of conferences isn’t such a wacky idea after all.