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Southland Coaches Not Worried About West Dominance
West is best in the Southland Conference. At least, it has been.
In the two years since the SLC split into divisions, the West has clearly had the upper hand.
In the four divisional sports – baseball, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball – eight overall championships have been decided the last two years. Six have gone to West teams, with two shared between East and West teams. West teams have won all seven postseason tournaments in those sports (the 2008 baseball tournament is next week).
The question is, is this simply a good cycle for West teams, or a sign that the balance of power in the conference has shifted?
“At first glance, I think with so many other things in the conference, things can be cyclical,” said Southland commissioner Tom Burnett. “I don’t read too much into it.”
“I think it’s cyclical,” said Northwestern State basketball coach Mike McConathy, whose teams have made it to four straight conference tournament finals. “If you look at it over another three-year period and the West is still dominating, then you take another look at the situation.”
It is hard to draw too many conclusions from just two years of divisional play.
Teams that are currently in the East Division, for example, won the two regular-season baseball and men’s basketball titles before the divisional alignment took effect in 2007.
But with a pronounced difference in size and resources between the Texas schools that make up the West Division and the Louisiana schools that predominantly make up the East Division – a gap that is growing larger – it is legitimate to wonder if the competitive balance in the conference is being affected.
Texas vs. Louisiana
A simplistic way of looking at the difference between the East and West divisions is as a contrast between the conference’s Texas and Louisiana schools.
All six schools in the West are in Texas. Four of the six East schools are in Louisiana and one is in Arkansas (Lamar was the lone Texas school in the East the past two years, a distinction that will go to Stephen F. Austin the next two years while Lamar goes to the West).
The Texas schools have more students, bigger budgets and have had more success across the board.
Texas schools have made up the top five in the SLC’s all-sports competition, the Commissioner’s Cup, in each of the past five years. The last Louisiana school to win the all-sports competition was NSU in 1997-98.
In the 14 SLC sports with the greatest member participation, Texas teams won 11 overall championships this year, with two going to Louisiana schools and one shared. Texas schools are 6-for-6 in conference tournaments in those sports this year.
The seven Texas schools’ average enrollment of nearly 15,000 is more than double that of the Louisiana schools, which average less than 7,000 students. According to U.S. Department of Education figures, the average athletic budget for the Texas schools is $2 million more than that of the Louisiana schools, despite the fact that four of the Texas schools don’t have football.
“The fact of the matter is the numbers don’t lie,” said Northwestern State athletics director Greg Burke. “It is what it is. The financial difference has always been there. … On any level there are going to be programs that have more money. What some people have and what some people don’t have is the way it is.”
“It definitely comes into play,” said NSU football coach Scott Stoker. “It’s hard not to when their budgets are double ours. It’s a little scary, just the resources they have that we don’t. It’s obviously a lot of money.”
And the disparity will get larger, Burnett thinks, as the “smaller” Texas Division I schools hit an expected growth spurt as a result of the larger state schools capping their enrollment.
While Northwestern State and Nicholls State recently started charging students $3.50 per credit hour to help fund athletics, the student fees at some of the Texas schools such as Texas-San Antonio and Lamar are three times that and growing.
Northwestern should raise up to $800,000 from its student athletic fee this year. Should UTSA, for example, follow through on plans to raise its student fee to $20 per credit hour over the next five years, that could potentially raise close to $10 million annually.
“I think it’s going to continue to be a conversation, especially since the money seems to be growing faster on the Texas side,” Burnett said. “If you saw Texas schools start to win everything over the next decade, you would know what happened – that this tremendous financial investment had paid off. But I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen.”
If money was everything, then football in the Southland would belong to Texas.
Instead, it has been the Louisiana schools who have had more success in by far the most expensive sport.
Louisiana schools have won or shared the football championship in each of the last seven seasons. Texas schools have shared three titles in that span.
“I think the Louisiana schools have done an excellent job,” said McNeese football coach Matt Viator. “What they’ve done at Northwestern, and when you look at what Jay (Thomas) has done at Nicholls, it’s amazing. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot.”
“If you look at the history of Southland Conference football, it has been predominantly won by Louisiana schools,” Burnett said. “You look at the success of McNeese State, plus Northwestern State and Nicholls State. The financial benefits and advantages the Texas schools have has not necessarily meant domination on the field.”
In some of the other most visible sports, the Louisiana schools have held their own and then some.
In men’s basketball, Louisiana schools have won four regular-season titles since 2001, with three going to Texas schools and one shared. The tournament titles have been split 4-4 in that span.
In baseball, 13 of the last 18 regular-season champions have been Louisiana schools (Texas schools have had more success in the tournament, with 11 of the last 15 titles).
Just what athletic dominance means, in fact, is subjective.
The all-sports standings is one indicator, but it’s skewed by the fact that six track sports – men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track and cross-country – make up more than one-third of the 17 Southland team championships, while more popular sports such as football count just once.
In 2004-05, for instance, when Northwestern State became the first Southland team to win football, men’s basketball and baseball championships in the same year, the Demons finished fifth in the men’s all-sports standings.
How many fans would trade a half-dozen titles in less visible sports for one football championship, or a trip for their basketball team to the NCAA Tournament?
“I certainly believe the Louisiana schools are just as interested in winning championships,” Burnett said. “They want to compete as hard as they can and win whatever they can, no matter what resources might be on another campus.”
The future of divisional play in the Southland is up in the air. Lamar and Stephen F. Austin will switch divisions for the next two-year cycle, after which the situation will be evaluated.
The conference could eventually keep the divisions the way they are or realign them. Southland teams could also keep a divisional schedule to save money on travel but do away with the divisions.
However the Southland is aligned, the issue of East vs. West and Louisiana vs. Texas will likely always be in the background. A sustained period of dominance by the better-funded Texas schools could push it into the foreground, but there is little concern around the conference about that now.
“Success can’t be based solely on who has the most resources,” Burke said. “Otherwise, why do we play the games?”
“I’m not ready to buy into the West is all powerful and the East is weaker,” Burnett said. “It could develop into that, or it may not. I think the East schools are doing a pretty good job.”
NSU not worried with Southland’s divisional dominance
By Jeff Matthews, Pineville Town Talk
Photo Credit: McNeese State Sports Information