by Doug Ireland
The biggest games this fall are not being played on football fields.
Not at Northwestern, McNeese, or Louisiana Tech, to zero in on nearby colleges with a lot of high stakes maneuvering swirling around their athletic futures. They’re hardly unique. This is a turbulent time around the country as Division I conference affiliations are undergoing their own versions of legislative and congressional redistricting.
At NSU, there’s an even bigger, hotter topic: the search for a new president. That, at least, is to be resolved as a field of six semifinalists – three with Northwestern ties – is trimmed to two in the first couple days of November and a winner is declared by the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors on Nov. 8.
Whoever is still standing, and taking the keys to the president’s home facing Chaplin’s Lake on campus, will need to immediately focus on the status of the Southland Conference as a top priority to be addressed, well before a Thanksgiving dinner menu is discussed.
By then, McNeese may be on its way out the Southland door. The leadership in Lake Charles believes its best course is to pursue Football Bowl Subdivision membership, and not to stay in the Football Championship Subdivision-rooted Southland. The rationale is to cash in on the bigger revenues from game guarantees, bowl money, and TV shares, and the notion that the move up will pique fan interest.
The route struck a dead end a couple weeks ago when McNeese’s ultimate new neighborhood, the Sun Belt Conference, including UL Lafayette and UL Monroe, expanded and reportedly didn’t give even a glance toward Lake Charles. The Clampetts didn’t really fit in Beverly Hills, did they? That’s sure how the Cowboys look to Ragin’ Cajun fans and the ULL administration, except without the bubblin’ crude to fuel McNeese’s ambition.
But there’s some mutual interest, to say the least, between McNeese and the rapidly shifting Western Athletic Conference. Last time the WAC had any tie to the Bayou State, Louisiana Tech roamed that far-flung territory with well established, authentically western FBS programs like Boise State, Fresno State, Colorado State and Hawaii 10 years ago.
That was then, and now the only leftover from that WAC is New Mexico State. The newbies include four Texas schools that bolted from the Southland last year – longstanding NSU and McNeese rivals Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Lamar and new-to-the scene, Abilene Christian, one of the darlings of last year’s March Madness basketball tournament. After a decade of not sponsoring football, the WAC is rejoining the FCS ranks next fall, with visions of somehow moving into the FBS despite none of the members meeting current standards to do so.
As SFA and crew landed in the WAC, they found the landscape tilted northwest, with plenty of cruel, lengthy bus rides for their teams or even worse, costly air travel to places like Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Seattle. Suddenly, the move seemed WACky, unless they could establish a Texas-based southern division with the lure of a potential upgrade to FBS status dangled in front of former undesirable Southland partners, McNeese and Incarnate Word (in San Antonio).
Two programs that were deemed low-class cousins by SFA and its scoundrel travel partners less than a year ago suddenly had curb appeal. As in, the curb on the only paved street in your neighborhood.
McNeese and UIW made membership presentations in early October to WAC presidents meeting in Denver. It’s reasonable to expect a marriage of convenience may be consummated soon, and if that happens, it sets off tornado warnings in Natchitoches, Thibodaux, Hammond and New Orleans as the viability of the Southland is in serious peril, and there is no apparent safe harbor or escape hatch for NSU, Nicholls, Southeastern or UNO.
Addressing the risk of that implosion must be an immediate priority for the new NSU president. It should be of great interest in Baton Rouge, with a shredded Southland stressing athletic programs of the remaining four ULS schools that combined spend close to $40 million annually ($7.5 at Northwestern, and that’s at the bottom end of current Southland athletic budgets). But another Southland shakeup seems to be met with indifference, or even with the apparent support of UL System president Dr. Jim Henderson, who was in Denver at McNeese’s presentation, according to south Louisiana sources. That’s a head scratcher.
So, too, for Louisiana Tech fans is the recent deterioration of their Conference USA. One of the departures of seven schools stings more than the rest. North Texas, Rice, UAB, UTSA, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte all are bringing their big metro TV markets to the American Athletic Conference (where Tulane is smiling). While a bitter pill, it’s one easily swallowed. Not at all: watching Tech’s nearest CUSA cousin, Southern Mississippi, gleefully heading into the once substandard Sun Belt, aligning with the UL’s, Monroe and Lafayette, and thanks to Coastal Carolina and Appalachian State and the like, heading into what has recently emerged as an attractive second-tier league in football and baseball.
There’s certainly a chill in the air even in August when Bulldogs approach Warhawks or Ragin’ Cajuns. Institutionally, they are neighbors but not friends, athletically speaking. Cordial is an alcoholic beverage available in all three camps, not a description of how they play together. The UL’s get along fine, comparatively speaking, because they share deep-seeded disdain for the outliers in Ruston.
Meanwhile, much discontent at LSU has been resolved by the expensive ouster of Coach O, and the resulting joys of a football coaching search. The SEC’s borders expanded with the impending additions of powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas. Tons of TV revenue will accumulate faster than snow did early this year in these parts.
There’s never been a better time to be an HBCU, and especially a member of the SWAC. Grambling and Southern athletics are well positioned for decades to come. The suggestion that they would solve the Southland’s woes is as unlikely as Biden and Trump sitting down to supper – or LaTech shuffling into the Sun Belt any time soon.
It won’t be people wearing headsets or uniforms making the biggest difference for sports at NSU, Tech or McNeese this fall or in 2022. It’s going to be the grownups in dress clothes, and the biggest plays will be made by telephone, text, e-mail, and Zoom.
If somehow McNeese can be persuaded to stay put, the Southland’s stock – and not only in Lake Charles but at NSU, Nicholls, SLU and UNO – would be steadied. Otherwise, cryptocurrency is more reliable.