Southland commissioner: Time to regroup, move forward again
By CRAIG HALEY
Stats Perform FCS Senior Editor
(Stats Perform) - The gap between emotions seemed more considerable Thursday than the distance between the Western Athletic Conference's announcement in Houston of a football rebirth and where the Southland Conference is headquartered about a four-hour's drive north in Frisco, Texas.
Four schools that will become a part of the WAC on July 1 will be departing the Southland - Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin. Their decisions to move on are jarring to a conference that has been one of the leaders on the FCS level, and it could occur again with Central Arkansas rumored to be planning a move to the Atlantic Sun Conference.
If and when UCA is added to the scenario, a Southland that has 13 schools, including 11 football members, would drop to eight and six, respectively.
While excitement filled the schools introduced by the WAC at NRG Stadium, including Southern Utah - which will depart the Big Sky Conference in 2022 and play in the new FCS league - disappointment was felt in Frisco and by the remaining Southland schools in Texas and Louisiana.
Still, it's not the first time the Southland has undergone realignment, nor surely the last time. To move forward, the remaining schools have hired Plano-based Eastman & Beaudine Inc., an executive search and athletics consulting service, to help determine their conference's direction, including attracting new membership.
"Really where our focus has been is on turning the page, getting on with the plans that we have," said Tom Burnett, the Southland commissioner since 2002 and a driving force in the FCS.
His conference, he added is undergoing "a process through the spring that allows us some opportunity to kind of gauge what might be possible in our region of the country. That is where all of our focus has gone, and what's been very heartening is the level of support, unanimity on getting behind a plan and moving forward, working on the next chapter of the Southland Conference. That chapter's not written yet."
While conference realignment has slowed in recent years, the FCS level has still seen the Big South Conference hurt considerably by the loss of schools, only to bounce back with new membership, and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference is still working to overcome losses. It may have been hard to anticipate the Southland situation considering its schools' success on a national level, the development of the conference's broadcast package and the conference thriving as the host of national championship week since 2010 (the title game is played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco).
The Southland sponsors 18 sports - 10 for women and eight for men - and barring a change of heart by Central Arkansas, it will have football members in Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, McNeese, Nicholls, Northwestern State and Southeastern Louisiana, plus New Orleans and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in other sports.
Burnett said he's heard talk about departing schools questioning the athletic commitment of others, but feels the remaining schools would push back at it.
Said Burnett: "Who's not committed - Nicholls? Nicholls has won our last two championships. Who's not committed - UIW? UIW went to the playoffs a couple years ago and shared a championship. So when people point those fingers about not being committed, what are they really talking about? Everybody in this conference is committed to a championship expectation.
"If you don't think they're committed, bring your football team to one of our stadiums. We'll take our chances."
Burnett wished success to the departing schools, adding, "But just like they're doing, we have to move forward."
Updated January 14, 2021