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What’s next for the Southland Conference?

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The Southland has added Texas A&M Commerce, but with so many departures, that may not be enough.

Syndication: The Abilene Reporter-News Joey D. Richards/Abilene Reporter-News via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The triumphant news came across on a January day while the COVID-19 pandemic and the usual throes of winter were both doing their best to keep everyone in hibernation.

The WAC is BACK!

That’s right. Gone are the days of six- and seven-team conference tournaments, and of New Mexico State and its personalized punching bags. The once-proud conference fell from its perch of being the Mountain West’s twin, survived several years of uncertainty and instability at the basement of Division I, and now appears ready to re-emerge with a few new faces, as a respectable force in the mid-major world.

But there are two sides to every story, and it’s hard not to look at the conference that the WAC just looted. One conference marches out of a period of uncertainty at the expense of another, who after toiling for so long to gain respect, may be headed for an uncertain period of its own.

That conference is the Southland. The WAC scooped up four of its teams (Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston State, Abilene Christian, and Lamar) at the end of the 2020-21 year. A fifth, Central Arkansas, left for the ASUN, leaving the conference with just eight members once the transitions are complete, only six of which carry football.

For months, while anticipation for the WAC’s return seemed to grab more headlines, the Southland publicly stayed under the radar with regards to its next move. What would happen to it? Would it expand and is standing pat even an option?

Then, after rumors surfaced in September, the Southland officially announced the addition of Texas A&M-Commerce as its ninth member. Located in Commerce, Texas, a town of less than 8,000 and roughly 65 miles northeast of Dallas, the A&M Commerce Lions will begin the four-year transition from the Division II Lone Star Conference to Division I next fall, pending NCAA approval.

It’s a celebratory moment for the school and its students, players, fans, and fans of mid-major teams in general. (Welcome to the NMTC, by the way.) But how much will it lift the conference?

It’s important to remember that the Southland’s uphill battle to re-establish itself owes not only to how many it lost, but also to who it lost.

  • In men’s and women’s basketball, Stephen F. Austin had established itself throughout the past decade as a power. The men are tournament regulars and legitimate giant killers, having notched two (one vacated) notable NCAA Tournament wins and another even more memorable road win at Duke.
  • Abilene Christian’s men’s basketball program stepped to the forefront a couple of years ago and grabbed the attention of the nation with its toppling of Texas earlier this year in its Southland swan song.
  • In football, Sam Houston State had reached the FCS semifinal playoff round or better in six of the last 10 seasons, including two runner-up finishes and finally a championship in the spring 2021 season.

Three NCAA tournament wins and an FCS championship is more than most mid-major leagues can boast over the past decade, so there are clearly big shoes to fill.

According to Matt Brown, writer of the Extra Points newsletter, the Southland originally prioritized adding D-I teams in its existing geographic footprint to fill those big shoes — mainly SWAC schools. To this point, the Southland has not been able to lure any of them. The TAMU-Commerce addition clearly signals its shift in strategy: digging in the ranks of Division II.

In a press conference, Southland commissioner Tom Burnett almost seemed to indicate compromising one strategy for another:

“We were looking for Division I institutions. I’m reminded of a comment that stuck with me from maybe the first minute that I was on campus, and it was actually from [TAMUC football coach David Bailiff]. He says, ‘There ain’t nothing Division II about this place.’ That stuck with me.”

He also mentioned the desire for “like institutions” and a preference for athletic programs with football.

TAMUC is hardly the first team to make a jump to D-I out of the Lone Star Conference. Current Southland member Incarnate Word and Southland departure Abilene Christian made the leap in 2013. Tarleton State, another piece of the WAC’s resurgence, elevated last year. However, it appears that Commerce would be by far the best fit: a high student enrollment, competitive sports programs, and location right in their existing geographic footprint. And most importantly, it has a football team — one with a Division II title in 2017.

The Southland could pursue other teams from the Lone Star conference if it wants, but there are only a handful of qualified candidates left. Given that they are looking for football programs, there are just seven that remain, and the order of desired candidates would depend on the Southland’s priorities. For instance, West Texas A&M may be the strongest program of the bunch, with a student body over 10,000 and recent success in football and especially men’s basketball, but may be west of the desired geographic region. Texas A&M-Kingsville is a bit closer to home and holds an existing rivalry with Commerce (and for the love of God, please let us have “Javelinas” in Division I) but perhaps leaves a bit more to be desired in university funding and athletic strength. Angelo State appears to be somewhat of a middle ground geographically and athletically.

It’s also worth wondering if the Lone Star Conference, now down to so few football teams, may provide incentives to any schools not totally committed to the D-I jump. In Brown’s article from April, he mentioned the reluctance certain programs would have to such a move due to the political ramifications that may result, including splitting up the Lone Star Conference and damaging D-II football viability at other programs.

If the Southland fails to add any members within its current compact footprint, it will need to seek expansion further away. There are several Division II members in West Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and in the gulf states further east. It could also poach from another conference that lost marquee members of its own — the Ohio Valley, who after the departures and planned departures of core members Eastern Kentucky, Belmont and Austin Peay, is now down to just eight teams of its own. Should, say, the largest remaining brand name Murray State also decide to jump ship, it could potentially become open season on the remaining smaller programs as the OVC could easily fall apart at that stage.

Of course, the exact same fate could be awaiting the Southland if it takes too long to make a move. Even with the addition of TAMUC, if other members leave the conference (Brown speculated McNeese State may be one) the Southland may be well on the road to being pulled apart by other conferences — leagues like the ASUN and Big South seem to pick up steam each year.

The consensus appears to be that no matter who else the Southland is able to pick up, if anyone, it will likely not be as highly regarded as it once was. The options out there simply won’t replace what they lost this summer. But that may not be the goal right now — simply staying alive might be enough.

Look again at the WAC. For a few seasons, it seemed like teams were flowing in and out each year. In 2012, five new schools were added; four were gone the next year. They pursued teams that may not have completely fit their profile, but eventually, they came out stronger. For the Southland to do the same, it will have to compromise. It may need to venture off the beaten path and outside their current scope.

As Brown said, “The status quo isn’t sustainable. Either [the Southland Conference] will grow or it will die.”