OPINION/By Doug Ireland, Journal Sports
Monday morning, I listened to Greg Sankey, the most powerful man in college sports as the Southeastern Conference commissioner, cite the necessity to be “thoughtful but nimble” in the constantly evolving landscape of conference affiliations.
New Southland Conference commissioner Chris Grant has certainly been thoughtful but nimble as he’s navigated the turbulent league landscape since coming on board as the No. 2 guy last summer, then emerging as commissioner in waiting last fall. He gets a lot of credit for Southland cornerstone McNeese choosing to stay put (for now, since the Cowboys unabashedly admit they are looking for upward mobility).
He also is lauded for helping bring Lamar back from the Western Athletic Conference to the Southland after a miserable year flying teams all around three time zones, and for helping Incarnate Word realize the folly of trying the same thing. UIW walked to the DMZ, looked at the other side, and decided not to defect, after Grant helped encourage the Southland’s San Antonio member to stay put. ,
The Southland was a conference in crisis a year ago, with longtime members (Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston) departing, dragging Lamar and Abilene Christian along; with Central Arkansas also bolting, and McNeese wavering on joining the wacky WAC. Now, largely credited to Grant playing a pivotal role, the league has 10 committed members (eight football schools) and an even split between Texas and Louisiana campuses. As it staged the Southland Football Media Day event Wednesday in the defacto conference headquarters, Lake Charles, the Southland has pulled off quite the comeback.
In an 11th-hour switch in June, Lamar chose to rejoin the Southland for this season, not 2023-24 as indicated this spring. That produced a scramble to rearrange the league’s schedules in all sports. Football, in scope and profile, presented the biggest logistical hurdles.
And the biggest, oldest, most tradition-laden rivalry in the Southland didn’t survive.
When the Southland proudly trotted out its revamped football slate eight days ago, the Northwestern State-McNeese game was wiped away. The Demons and Cowboys have met every season since 1951, but are no longer to scheduled to play this fall.
It was to be the final home game for the Demons and the closing contest of the regular season for both teams. If played on that date, or any other, it’s a series with 70 years of annual history, almost double the next closest in the Southland, It’s the one game left on NSU’s slate that every year, players, coaches, and fans on both sides circle as soon as that season’s schedules are set. Until now.
Kicking off SEC Media Days in Atlanta Monday, Sankey addressed scheduling – the SEC’s issue is not a quick fix, but what to do when Texas and Oklahoma join, presumably in 2025. He cited the SEC’s policy of three “permanent” rivalries (LSU has Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida).
The Southland doesn’t have permanent rivalries – well, not any longer. In a statement issued to The Journal, Grant tried to explain why not.
“As a conference with deep pride in its history of competitive excellence, the Southland Conference has profound respect for the legendary rivalry between McNeese State and Northwestern State. We also understand the fan frustration that organizers had to hit the pause button for a year due to multiple intersecting obligations. As schools worked to build non-conference schedules for this fall, they did a fantastic job accommodating the welcome presence of Lamar University and the University of Incarnate World, a scheduling alliance with the Ohio Valley Conference and several prioritized dates on campus for multiple schools. We apologize to the student-athletes and fans for the necessary pause on this annual tradition and look forward to the rivalry’s spirited resumption in 2023.”
Sorting through: “profound respect for the legendary rivalry?” Horse hooey.
“Had to hit the pause button for a year due to multiple intersecting obligations.” Don’t think you “had to,” Mr. Grant. You just didn’t care enough to have your crew work a little bit harder to preserve a 70-season series between in-state rivals. Truman was president when the Demons and Cowboys first teed it up. You’re right about one thing – it is a “legendary rivalry.”
“Several prioritized dates on campus for multiple schools.” Uh, we can easily read that, as Homecoming. Every school has it. Everybody loves it. But shouldn’t the oldest active, continuous series in the Southland also be “prioritized?”
“Necessary pause on this annual tradition.” Totally unnecessary, that is. I get that there’s a rush to produce a schedule. The season is nearing, but there are six weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener, and nine weeks before Southland games start on Sept. 24. The Southland didn’t pause on the annual tradition. It trashed the annual part.
Remember the words of Greg Sankey – commissioner of the Southland, by the way, from 1996-2002: “thoughtful but nimble.”
During the crush of the pandemic, we saw countless examples of “nimble” when it came to scheduling, to practices, to travel, to … everything. Some games played on Saturdays were set up just days earlier.
What we have here is a refusal to admit a correctable error. The conference office will tell us that the schedule announced last week was “approved” by each school. I know it caught the NSU football staff by surprise, after they heard a couple days earlier from McNeese colleagues that the game would probably move off the final date to accommodate McNeese-Lamar there. Fine. But to toss it aside? Terrible.
Even worse? There’s ample time to fix this — if only Grant and crew could show us a little “nimble.” But they won’t. In Lake Charles Wednesday, Grant talked about the value of traditional rivalries, citing McNeese and Lamar. NSU-McNeese wasn’t mentioned until Sheldon Mickles of the Baton Rouge Advocate asked him.
Give Grant this much: he can tap dance. Moments after saying “rivalries are the most important thing in college athletics … rivalries are the most important thing to keep our Southland brand … we had to be sure we maintained those, and that will be our priority as we move forward,” he wouldn’t say the tradition of playing for 70 straight seasons in a rivalry mattered enough to preserve it this fall.
“Trust me, we won’t miss again on that, and we’re going to try our best going forward to make sure that doesn’t happen again in this conference,” said Grant, who has yet to be seen at a game or public event in Natchitoches since joining the Southland staff a year ago.
“Trust me”? It will take a LaMark Carter-esque leap of faith for this Demon. Grant has very deliberately discarded the only significant football rivalry left for NSU, in favor of appeasing Lamar, which has now left and returned to the Southland two times – you can’t call Lamar loyal. But the Cardinals were nonetheless the priority over a member that joined the Southland and has been an anchor for the conference since 1987, hosting countless championship events that no other league member wanted.
Of note: the Lamar-McNeese football series also began in 1951, but it’s taken pauses of 10 and 30 years between games. The Cardinals and Cowboys have played 39 times along with those gaps. Their “traditional” rivalry resumed in 2010. I’m not saying they shouldn’t play this season, but Grant cannot convince me that NSU-McNeese in 2022 should be a casualty of that or any other circumstance.
It took under three weeks to produce this altered slate. This flaw could be fixed faster, if anyone truly cared to put in the extra work at the Southland office. It only matters to the players, coaches and fans. That’s all.