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A Tale of Two Conferences: SWAC supports Legacy Bowl; MEAC schools against it
On paper, it seemed brilliant and simple.
The Legacy Bowl would pit the champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and the Southwestern Athletic Conference – against each other. Airing on ESPN, it would guarantee a $3 million payout to be split by the conferences. It would also end the arguments, such as when South Carolina State edged out Prairie View A&M for the Sheridan Broadcasting Network’s Black National Championship – neither team played each other (in fact, the MEAC and SWAC rarely play each other).
Ever since reports about the proposed bowl began to leak out – first from the Jaguar Journal radio show, then TSPNSports.com and, finally, College Sporting News – it has seemed like a done deal. Reports say the various presidents of the SWAC and MEAC are 100 percent behind the deal.
But, hold on. The proposal has hit a big snag. The game is slated for Dec. 17, 2011, right in the middle of the FCS playoffs.
While the SWAC does not participate in the Football Championship Series playoffs, the MEAC has an automatic berth. In fact, the first FCS (formerly known as Division 1-AA) championship game in 1978 was won by Florida A&M over UMass).
MEAC schools like FAMU and SC State are opposed. In the case of FAMU, President James Ammons recently sent a letter to National Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell about the proposed game being considered by MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas.
Ammons stated in the letter that no final decision had been made on the game and that he was firmly opposed to the MEAC dropping its automatic berth in the FCS playoffs. He consulted with his interim athletic director Michael Smith and head football coach Joe Taylor before making the statement.
Oliver “Buddy” Pough, head coach at defending MEAC champion SC State, expressed reservations against the proposed bowl earlier this year, in an interview with The State’s Ron Morris back in February.
Pough said that there are two things that must happen for the MEAC to achieve national respect – it must beat an FBS team and it must win an FCS playoff game.
SC State has fallen in the first round of the FCS playoffs in each of the past two years – 37-21 to Appalachian State in 2008 and 20-13 to Appalachian in 2009).
Arguments have been put forth that SCSU’s playoff losses are a prime reason for the Legacy Bowl. No HBCU has gotten past the first round since FAMU got to the semifinals in 1999.
FCS playoff games generate little to no revenue for road teams, which the MEAC’s participants always have been. Even hosting a playoff game can put a school (black or white) into the hole.
On the other hand, HBCU classics have become big money earners. And make no mistake, the decision for the Legacy Bowl is strictly a money decision.
The SWAC has given up on the FCS playoffs. Southern and Grambling always opt out in favor of the big-money Bayou Classic. No team has gone to the playoffs since Jackson State took Southern’s spot in 1997. And the conference was looking to replace its SWAC championship game, which had been underperforming.
Thus, a bowl game with a guaranteed $3 million payout and national exposure on ESPN would seem like a winning hand.
For the MEAC, however, it’s a dicier proposition. FAMU and SC State aside, many MEAC fans from the other schools have blogged about not giving up the automatic berth. While their positions won’t put a million or so dollars in the MEAC’s pockets, they do show that prestige does still carry weight.
As Pough said, winning an FCS playoff game, can earn a school national respect. Even participating in the playoffs aids recruiting. By most measures, the MEAC has had better recruiting classes than the SWAC.
The Legacy Bowl is no stranger to the post-season debate for HBCU’s. The SWAC and MEAC used to meet regularly in the Heritage Bowl from 1991-99 and there was a brief attempt to revise the game in 2009 (the MEAC opted out rather than forfeit its automatic FCS berth).
The whole debate has been a strange affair. After Prairie View won its first SWAC championship in 45 years last November, the conference announced a switch to a nine-game conference schedule. That eliminated the need for a championship and seemed to indicate a willingness by the SWAC to participate in the FCS playoffs. Indeed, football pundits said that it was a shame that Prairie View’s season ended with the SWAC championship and the Panthers did not have a chance to go against other FCS powers.
Now, it seems that the SWAC will still be in the same predicament. Its champion will still only go to a limited-concept game. The winner would not even be guaranteed the BNC because a Division II school like Tuskegee or Albany State or even an NAIA school like Langston could be voted in.
Several alternate proposals have been offered. The MEAC could keep its automatic berth and send its runner-up instead to the bowl. Or the champ could go to the Legacy Bowl and the runner-up to the playoffs, though that is far less likely since that team would have to be selected as an at-large bid.
The game could be played after the FCS playoffs are over, putting it into ESPN’s Bowl Week. The NCAA would have to issue a special ruling, though, because it considers bowl games to be playoff games. Should the MEAC or SWAC champ go all the way to the championship, it might run over its maximum number of games.
Thirdlly, the Legacy Bowl could serve as the first-round game between the SWAC and MEAC champions during the FCS playoffs. The game would automatically carry more weight than bragging rights because the loser would be done for the season. ESPN could still show it, just at an earlier date.
The big downside, though, would be that one HBCU would automatically be eliminated, cutting in half any chance for an HBCU to win a national championship.
Still, the upside would be that two HBCUs would be in the playoffs, instead of just the MEAC.
There are some schools of thought that say the SWAC shouldn’t even bother with the MEAC. The Legacy Bowl could pit the SWAC champion against a non-HBCU. A school that lost in the FCS playoffs could be selected or possibly a deserving team that missed an at-large bid to the FCS (though, with the format expanding to 24 teams in 2010, that would seem less likely).
Some bloggers have even floated the Legacy Bowl as an annual event between the SWAC and the Ivy League. On paper, it works because the Ivy League does not offer scholarships. Its players are walk-ons, meaning that the SWAC schools might stand an even chance.
Such a scenario may be unlikely, however, because the Ivy League schools are all in the northeast and the SWAC is in the southern and southwestern United States. The cost of getting the teams to the game might negate the payout.
If the SWAC could regularly beat a white school, though, it might lure the MEAC back into consideration. Then again, if the SWAC can regularly beat a powerhouse white school, it might be worth going into the FCS playoffs.
For now, if the presidents have their say, the SWAC and MEAC champions will face each other in December of 2011. But, a lot can change in a year and a half.
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