McNeese Sacks The WAC
I have said for years now that McNeese had to get off their keisters, get their athletic house in order and make an aggressive run at moving out of FCS football and securing a seat at the adult table of FBS.
Over the past few months, McNeese, led by first-year athletic director Heath Schroyer, have been doing just that, making overtures to the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Sunbelt and just about any other league that would take his call in hopes of finding a clear and present path out of the Southland Conference and into an FBS league.
Light at the end of college football’s recent conference-hopping tunnel came in the form of an official invitation to McNeese to join the Western Athletic Conference. The same once-proud WAC lured four of the SLC’s Texas-based teams earlier in the year and boasted they would petition the NCAA for a return to FBS status in the next two years.
The media recognized the impact of the WAC’s offer on McNeese’s athletics and the future of the Southland Conference as a league. I wrote about what any conference move would mean to McNeese here in the pages of Lagniappe and labeled an ascension to FBS football the biggest story in the school’s sports history.
The fans were getting giddy.
I am sure the players and coaches were feeling excited about the prospect of one day soon playing against the big boys.
All the while, Schroyer and McNeese president Dr. Daryl Burckel cracked a few outward smiles, but cautioned there was still “due diligence” to perform and a boat load of fine print to read.
In short, an invite, albeit a warm and fuzzy one, didn’t mean the deal was done.
Ironically, in the week when the WAC invite was extended, Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett decided to make an appearance at the McNeese-Nicholls State game. As far as I could tell, it was his first visit to McNeese this football season.
The beleaguered Burnett, struggling to keep his Southland Conference afloat in the chaos of conference changes, had long conversations with Schroyer and Burckel. No doubt Burnett was making his best sales pitch to keep the league’s longest charter member in the SLC.
I am sure McNeese’s AD and school president listened politely, but all the while knew the WAC in its current form of committed teams (a very critical point in the story) was where they were leaning.
And then things changed.
In today’s college football, with the transfer portal, TV contracts and the foundation-rocking move by Texas and Oklahoma to the S.E.C., change is now the new norm.
On any given day, a conference can go from 12 teams down to six in the blink of an eye.
And in that same blink, the WAC lost newly acquired Sam Houston State and longtime league member New Mexico State to Conference USA. All this occurred while McNeese was dissecting that fine print in the WAC’s contract and invite.
With Sam Houston and New Mexico State — two teams with influence and leverage — gone, the WAC didn’t look enticing any longer because the remaining seven or eight smaller football playing teams were not as committed to moving up to FBS in a short time frame or at all.
McNeese was backed into a corner not of its making.
They had calls and emails into Conference USA and the Sunbelt, but there is no real interest at this time. The WAC gave them the best eventual move up to FBS, but only with Sam Houston and New Mexico State. And without those two programs, the conference was just a polished up version of the Southland, with little to no regional rivalries and increased travel and expenses.
What happened next was a classic case of making chicken salad out of chicken s***.
Schroyer went back to an open-armed and amenable commissioner Burnett to propose a deal, all the while knowing he had Burnett over the proverbial barrel.
McNeese would remain in the Southland Conference, and in essence help hold the league together in return for a not-so-small ransom.
The SLC agreed to move both the men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments, along with baseball and softball, to McNeese for the next four years, starting in 2023. McNeese will have the right of first refusal to continue hosting all those conference tournaments after that four-year period.
The Southland also agreed to return the annual league media day event to Lake Charles next summer. The preseason media gathering used to be held at L’Auberge Casino Resort, but was moved to Houston a few years ago in Burnett’s failed attempt at gaining large market media exposure.
It was a ridiculously poor decision, because the Houston media cares little about the Southland. But Burnett and his league board were infatuated and intent on putting all conference events in Texas, ignoring its member schools to the east.
The deal kicker may not be as headline-making as all these events coming to the region, but it is huge all the same. To the tune of $300,000.
McNeese now has a zero buy-out clause with the SLC, and will have an instant exit point when they pursue another FBS-oriented conference.
And it’s not a matter of if but when.
“Our goal is to be FBS football because it makes a financial difference in your program,” Burckel reiterated. “35 years ago, we probably did what was in the best interest at that time of the institution. And I think times have changed, and going FBS is the big change. Where we do it from is open. What matters is we go FBS eventually.
“There are openings in Conference USA potentially, so that is ever-changing,” Burckel said.
In a prepared statement, Burckel described the SLC as having a “newly invigorated Southland Conference leadership team.”
It’s funny how the Southland’s brass became invigorated when they were about to lose a power broker team like McNeese and the league was about to go under. “This agreement better positions us to pursue our goal of becoming an FBS football institution, while providing much needed economic stimulus for our community,” says Burckel.
I’m not sure or convinced moving these postseason conference tournaments and the media day event to Lake Charles will have a measurable and significant economic impact. But it looks good all the same. These events don’t draw thousands of out of town fans, so the impact will be minimal. Those who do come in for multiple days will spend on hotels, eat, drink and gamble.
The events will offer much more TV exposure and mentions for McNeese and Lake Charles than any coverage by ESPN or other broadcast and cable networks. That is typically difficult to put a monetary value on.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Schroyer got a special award and recognition from the city of Lake Charles, the Chamber of Commerce and the Southwest Louisiana Tourism and Convention Bureau for his wheeling and dealing with the Southland.
McNeese not being able to make a conference move out of the Southland right now amidst all these league changes and realignment is a huge letdown in my book.
All the recent reports and chatter about the WAC and Conference USA teased the McNeese fan base with the prospects of FBS football and playing bigger and more interesting games in the very near future.
I was never a strong proponent of the WAC with Sam Houston and New Mexico State. But if that was the only invite for McNeese right now, then yes, you have to go west, no question.
McNeese is not in the position (as Sam Houston State is — thanks in part to years of FCS playoff success, last season’s national championship and a No. 1 FCS ranking) to sit back and play a form of realignment roulette, waiting on a better roll of the wheel and an offer from Conference USA, the Sunbelt or anyone else that may never come.
The WAC without Sam Houston and New Mexico State was certainly not the move or future home for McNeese as it is right now. It would be a lateral move at best: joining Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word, Dixie State (Div II) and Southern Utah (Div II). Couple that with a financial hardship, a relocation that would bring literally no fanfare or fan excitement and a dead end sales pitch to any future corporate sponsors for the athletic department.
So Schroyer and Burckel stepped up to their hypothetical blackjack table with the Southland Conference and got a push with their decision to stay in the conference despite all those concessions and remain at the FCS level for the time being.
McNeese will be able to steer the SLC’s future moves now that it has a seat on the league’s board (not sure why they didn’t have a board position already) with Schroyer acting as an advisor to the commissioner.
There is talk now that Lamar and SFA might be persuaded to rejoin the SLC and bring Tarleton State with them. But Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian are more basketball-centric now with their recent success in the NCAA Tournament, and will probably see greener pastures in the WAC when it comes to securing a possible second bid to March Madness.
Here is one finite reality in this ongoing saga: the Southland Conference is and will remain an FCS league. That fact simply runs contrary to McNeese’s goal and endgame to be an FBS member.
“For us, FBS matters because it puts you at a different level. In a different arena. Puts you with different competition. And it’s that competition that matters that you bring in. So with FBS, you get home and home with UL-L. Home and home with UL-Monroe, with La. Tech. Home and home open up as long as you are FBS,” Burckel emphasized.
Those home and home games mean a possible return to those bygone regional rivalry matchups McNeese fans have been yearning for over the last 20 to 30 years. Burckel, a former McNeese All SLC linebacker who played in many of those in-state wars, says it would be better financially and for the growth of football if McNeese was a 6 and 6 FBS team, qualified for a bowl game and earned substantially more money rather than staying in an FCS business model that doesn’t work.
Unfortunately, the WAC could not keep its revolving doors closed, forcing McNeese to say thanks but no thanks to their invitation that came without a high profile guest list and special party favors.
I trust McNeese won’t get too comfortable in the Southland and will stay true to their word of going FBS as soon as feasibly possible. When I ask both Schroyer and Burckel about keeping all options open and taking all calls, their response is the same … “we are courting anybody that will talk with us about getting to FBS and looking for any date we can find.”
Let’s hope sacking the WAC is a temporary setback in getting to college football’s big table.
Catch Rick Sarro’s sports com- mentary Soundoff on CBS Lake Charles Tuesday and Thursday nights at 10:05 pm and Saturdays at 6:30 and 11 pm. It also airs nightly at 9 pm on SuddenLink Cable.