Southland Conference Stock Makes Historic Rebound, But Still Volatile

NSU 51 Nathalon Nanai MSU 8 Cody Orgeron

By Doug Ireland, Journal Sports

Thanks to a power play by people in Lake Charles, there’s been a big drop in blood pressure for plenty of folks in Natchitoches, Hammond, Thibodaux and a few on the Lakeshore in New Orleans.

A Tuesday afternoon announcement confirmed a swift turnaround toward status quo. McNeese revealed it was staying put in the Southland Conference, renewing longstanding cordial relations with Northwestern, Southeastern, Nicholls and UNO, much to the dismay of former friends in Texas.

It resuscitated the Southland from extinction, while creating at least a big wobble for the Western Athletic Conference, where former Southland members Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Lamar and Abilene Christian bolted earlier this year.

They tried to entice McNeese to join them. The Cowboys were receptive over the last several months, with McLeaders traveling to Denver a few weeks ago to make a membership presentation to current WAC gurus. The footsies and flirting seemed heading toward a likely engagement.

The Texas Traitors and the Cowboys have the same ultimate destination in mind: moving up from the Southland and Football Championship Subdivision membership (on-field playoffs for the top 24 teams nationally) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (and a chance to play in a low-level bowl game). The incentive$ were the lure of bowl revenue (not a lot for the bottom tier in the FBS), the chance to add another digit to low to mid-six figure paychecks from the biggest schools for football guarantee games (a trip to LSU or Texas might net an extra half-million), and the belief that playing more overly ambitious opponents at home might hike ticket revenues.

Let’s not get logic involved here and overcome ego. Anyone who has tracked attendance figures around the state has to admit the real path to hike home game ticket revenues would be to hire Marty McFly as commissioner, get Doc Brown’s flux capacitor going, and Go Back to The Gulf States Conference. Not exactly the future, but rebuilding a league with in-state schools would boost crowds in all sports, not just football, while cutting travel costs.

That’s not happening. Never mind the millions that would be produced in gate revenue and the millions in state money that would be reduced for travel. Ambition overrules everything.

Well, actually, in big league college sports, TV money does. It’s the lack of a local TV market of any consequence that left Louisiana Tech behind recently when much of Conference USA bolted for better deals and new territory. CUSA quickly went contraflow and a few days ago invited desolate-in-the-desert New Mexico State (stealing the Aggies from the WAC), deep pocketed and lonely Liberty, and two FCS stalwarts, Jacksonville State and Sam Houston (twice divorced, split from the Southland last year and now, the WAC; although there’s some chatter that the $2 million CUSA entry fee might sour Sam’s shift).

Where there are entry fees, there logically are exit fees. When the Texas schools bolted the Southland this spring, they each paid a relatively paltry $300,000 – as much as Sam Houston pays its baseball coach. Not exactly a tall hurdle to clear, so the remaining Southland membership agreed to hike their exit penalty rate.

Except in case McNeese makes a future move to FBS. The pile of concessions granted by the Southland Conference (with approval of its university presidents) was recited in a joint announcement Tuesday by the league and McNeese, with one exception. They didn’t mention McNeese staying is an engagement, not a remarriage. The door is left wide open for the Cowboys to climb up, at no cost. Nada. No toll booth to pass.

That’s a victory in Cowboy country, but a hollow plank elsewhere. McNeese going FBS is unlikely to occur any time soon. The only nearby FBS conferences, the Sun Belt and CUSA, aren’t interested or it would have already happened. For better (Sun Belt) and worse (CUSA), their membership shuffling is over for at least the next little bit, until the next seismic activity rolls downhill from the Power 5 leagues. When that happens, and it’s coming, it may very well knock the NCAA into oblivion.

In real time, McNeese recognized that losing New Mexico State and Sam Houston not only dashed the WACky dreams of upsizing to FBS status, but also suddenly greatly expanded an already frightful travel budget. The idea of a southern division was shot for a conference that stretches out to LA, up to Seattle, and into Arizona and Utah.

But keeping that option on the table presented a do-or-die decision to the Southland. Losing McNeese would have collapsed the league because it would have fallen below minimum membership requirements to maintain automatic NCAA postseason qualification for its championship teams in all sports, not just football. NSU, Nicholls, SLU and UNO were already hurriedly considering unappealing fallback affiliations with the Ohio Valley Conference or the Atlantic Sun, both requiring leapfrogging states to get to conference contests.

So the Cowboys got everything they asked for to stay put. From 2023-26, McNeese will host the conference basketball, baseball and softball tournaments, a decision that raised the ire of many coaches and fans around the Southland. The annual conference preseason football media event will be in Lake Charles. Don’t rule out the conference opening a satellite office there, hinting at moving its headquarters to SWLA.

My lunch bunch pals are wondering if we have to go to the Lake City for all future eatin’ meetin’s, or at least for four years.

Will the Southland sponsor a championship in duck calling and stage it in Cameron Parish?

Hmmmm, could be. The marsh people, who up until a couple of weeks felt like McLeast, too long taken for granted in the Texas-heavy Southland pecking order, are suddenly McAlmighty.

“A school that was desperate to get out of the league now becomes its biggest player,” wrote Lake Charles American Press columnist Jim Gazzolo.

The Southland sunshine dimmed a bit Friday when it lost the Alamo City’s Incarnate Word in a move that illustrates the desperation of the WAC. Stephen F. Austin 1) reluctantly accepted UIW into the Southland several years ago; 2) left the Southland citing substandard facilities and a lack of commitment to athletics by some league members, a clear diss aimed at UIW and Houston Baptist; and 3) now has kissed the pig and rolled out the WACky welcome mat.

But while amusing from that angle, UIW’s move does heighten the Southland’s urgency to recruit a couple more Division II football-playing members. Schools like Arkansas Tech, West Texas A&M, Central Oklahoma, even Delta State and West Florida could be receptive to an upgrade.

Some better be. You have to wonder, will Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (a non-football Southland member) look at a suddenly Louisiana-heavy league, and have a WAC-waiver? Will UL System czar Jim Henderson do what he didn’t earlier this fall regarding the McMove Mistake, and ensure that the inquiries by SLU and Nicholls toward possible ASUN affiliation are 86’d?

Time to update that #SouthlandStrong hashtag. It hasn’t fit all year. Truly, it was #SouthlandShaky, and for the time being, it’s #SouthlandSaved. For now.

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