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An interview with SLC commissioner Tom Burnett: Part 2
As the 2011-12 academic and competitive year approaches, Commissioner Tom Burnett answered questions about the state of the Conference and its future, NCAA issues and other items of interest. Here is second conversation that addresses a number of competitive issues, including recent news about various scheduling and championship tournament formats, the Southland basketball tournament, the league’s television efforts, and plans for the Southland’s upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.
Before we leave football-related issues, talk about the importance of the sport in the Southland and on its campuses?
Well, from day one almost 50 years ago, the Southland was a “football league” and it’s still the same a half-century later. That’s not meant to disparage other important sports the conference and its institutions sponsor. We also want to be known as a successful “basketball league” and a “softball league” and a “volleyball league.” But, among many other things, football sponsorship defines our position in the Division I governance system, not field hockey or baseball or track & field – not even basketball, as important as that sport is to all of us. In our part of the country, we all realize that football is king.
A strong commitment to football usually means the same dedication to good things in other sports, as success tends to breed more success. Simply put, football drives the bus and likely frames the future business of our league and others like us. Football remains a sport where we have won and still compete for national championships on a regular basis. Also, football at our institutions and in our communities is paramount. While perhaps at a different scale than many of the upper FBS conferences, college football is just as important in Lake Charles, Nacogdoches or Conway as it is in Baton Rouge, Austin or Fayetteville.
Football sponsorship leads to enhanced campus life and activities, facility improvements, greater alumni and student connections, more media and television coverage, larger local economic impact and increased private giving. It also gives institutions an identity in the fall that other sports cannot, especially in the South and Southwest, and that normally carries over throughout the academic year. So is it important? Absolutely, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.
What’s the future of the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, and what should the NCAA do to ensure this level of football is protected and allowed to succeed?
I think the subdivision can have a beneficial future if the NCAA fully commits to its championship event, as well the promotion and media exposure it deserves. The playoff is what clearly and smartly defines the FCS, and it must continually be enhanced and appropriately funded. Along with that, the bracket that was expanded from 16 to 20 teams last year, needs to grow again as I can argue the field should be 22 or 24 teams. But this is much easier said than done.
Football enhancements and the funding of such mean fighting for the same dollars the NCAA has to spend on all 89 of its championship events. And all those other sports want and likely deserve their funding opportunity as well. However, as I mentioned earlier, football has a governing importance that other sports don’t necessarily have. You will continue to see the Southland and many other FCS leagues push for bracket expansion and enhanced funding for the event. The postseason must have value, financial and otherwise, for the FCS membership. Additionally, if the championship can have the value we are all seeking, it should serve to stabilize membership throughout Division I. The NCAA needs a strong FCS, and the FBS should also appreciate a solid FCS that doesn’t continue to bleed with transitioning members to the bowl group.
The NCAA recently strengthened FCS to FBS transitional requirements, now necessitating an offer of conference membership before the move can occur. In your mind was this a significant enough change?
Yes and no. Certainly, it eliminates the thought that institutions can just do this on their own as an independent FBS member. Everything is now conference-controlled, and that’s the way it should be. However, my hesitation comes in that the minimums for FBS membership are not exactly at a significant threshold, and many FCS institutions clearly easily surpass these low margins, especially the 15,000 attendance requirement.
If some FBS institutions are allowed to do just the minimum, and can actually meet attendance standards by buying the tickets after the season ends, that only fuels the desire of some successful FCS programs to believe they can also be in the same room with Alabama, Penn State and Florida. Well, believe me, they can’t be in that room, don’t belong in that room, and further, the NCAA should not be allowing it. The record of competitive non-success of so many former FCS programs that have made the move proves this and is quite unfortunate. There should be a much more significant line drawn between the subdivisions that currently doesn’t exist.
Transitioning to other issues, discuss the recent Spring Meetings, specifically some of the actions of the Board of Directors. And were there any surprises?
I was very pleased that the 10 continuing conference members worked together to determine our competitive issues beginning in 2012-13. And, I’m sure most everyone did a double-take when the board expressed its desire to see a plan for all eligible teams participating fully in conference championships. While this has been talked about in previous presidential meetings, it’s never had enough support to be the will of the group. Many have asked what this is about, and I’d say it’s simply an effort to ensure the well-being of student-athletes, to give them all the most complete competitive experience possible.
One of the conference’s core responsibilities to its membership is providing championships, and I think the presidents found it somewhat counterintuitive for the league to not provide this valuable opportunity for so many student-athletes. Further, with the conference membership at 12 for a number of years, it wasn’t practical for all squads to participate, and the presidents want to see if 10 proves more feasible.
That being said, the conference staff will be working with athletic administrators throughout the summer to address possible formats, how brackets can be formed to ensure higher seeds get certain advantages, if some early-round games can be played at campus sites before advancement to a central championships venue, and what the impact may be for sports playing full single or double round-robin schedules in the regular-season. Also, does this work for the double-elimination baseball and softball tournaments? Lots of things still in the air, and the board will get another look at this in the fall.
The Conference conducted a bid process to determine future basketball tournament locations beginning in 2012. However, the board of directors only approved one additional year at Katy, Texas, at this time. What was the reasoning for this after the athletic directors recommended 2013 and 2014 in Katy as well? I think it ties to the previous issue of re-evaluating all championships issues with a revised 10-team league. The board recognized the need to set the 2012 tournament that’s less than a year away, but wanted some time to review everything in the coming months before moving forward.
Does this mean the basketball bid process will be re-opened for 2013 and 2014 and beyond?
Not necessarily. The athletic directors were very clear with their recommendation for Katy through 2014. I’m not sure what the appetite will be for re-opening the process. Then again, the board did not direct the conference staff or athletic directors to start over. We’ll first have to wait and see how the information we accumulate for the board will be received. There certainly remains considerable interest from other locales and venues. However, this was a fairly exhaustive process, and I’m not sure what the AD’s could or would have done differently to come to an alternate decision.
What’s the latest on the 2013 baseball tournament bid?
We’ve given member institutions and a number of neutral professional baseball facilities the month of June to re-submit bids. We are very pleased with the level of interest shown in the tournament, and look forward to some good news in the coming weeks.
The conference will drop East-West divisional play in 2012-13 for men’s and women’s basketball, and volleyball. What was the thinking behind this?
With 10 teams, full double round-robin schedules – 18 games or matches – were attractive for the continuing members. Therefore, the idea of partial round-robin slates in a divisional setup just didn’t seem to fit the league any more, and the switching of Lamar and SFA from East to West to East on a rotating basis wasn’t really preferred by either school. The additional conference contests will help many of our institutions that struggle to find non-conference home matchups, and this should also be beneficial from a financial standpoint.
The conference recently announced its full participation in the ESPN Bracketbusters event for men’s basketball in 2012. Is this a permanent feature on future schedules? And what’s the impact on SLC men’s basketball teams?
Bracketbusters is a fact of life for most mid-major leagues like ours that have multi-year ESPN contracts. While our participation in the event has been spotty in recent years, we’ll go the remaining four years of our current ESPN agreement essentially “all-in.” I think Bracketbusters serves a number of purposes.
Certainly, if our teams are playing at a high level at the time matchups are made, we look forward to a very beneficial national television opportunity. Further, and perhaps most importantly, Bracketbusters works as a scheduling method to ensure our teams receive Division I home games that we normally struggle to get. Also, it may lead to interesting and attractive matchups when road games are returned to our sites.
Playing non-conference games in the third week of February may be somewhat disruptive, especially for our teams hitting the road, but I believe it can be competitively beneficial for the league. Bracketbusters is what I consider the mainstream of mid-major basketball, and we shouldn’t want to sit on the sidelines while it’s happening. I think we’ll have a great deal of success in Bracketbusters. What are your thoughts on the Southland Conference Television Network that will begin its fourth year of broadcasts this fall?
When we started the network, I would’ve never thought we’d be talking about a fourth year of telecasts. However, I believe that clearly shows the value of the broadcast effort, the success we’ve had in many important markets, and the ability to sell the inventory to our corporate partners that appreciate their relationship with the Conference. The network has won numerous awards and is looked upon as a model for other conferences looking to expand their broadcast efforts. Further, leagues like the Sun Belt and WAC have developed their own regional television networks since we started ours, and I hear the Big South is also considering something similar. So what we started certainly has merit for a way to ensure a quality broadcast schedule with an outstanding method in controlling content and messaging. The membership is pleased with the network, and we’ve been very happy with the ability to broadcast so many events that were just impossible with our previous broadcast partner, despite a significant investment on our part. The Southland Conference will soon reach a remarkable milestone, its 50th Anniversary in 2013. What are the plans to commemorate this momentous occasion?
We’re just getting started with the planning, but there are numerous ideas that have already been mentioned internally. We’re first going to establish a blue-ribbon Anniversary Committee later this summer that will include administrators from our campuses. This will be the group that oversees the commemoration effort. I would also expect our sports information directors and other longstanding administrators to play large roles in this.
I’d also expect us to reach out to former conference members that played a significant role in the earlier years of the Southland’s growth to assist with ensuring we properly acknowledge the entire history of the league. I’d also expect some public involvement in this process as well. When you really look at the great things that have happened in the last half-century of the conference, its amazing to see the collective success, regardless of the membership lineup at any given time. national championships, All-Americans, Olympians, Hall of Famers, legendary coaches and innovative administrators are frequent throughout the five decades. This is going to be a fun project and a worthwhile celebration of the Southland Conference.
What do you like best about the Southland Conference?
I’ve always thought the people in this league are what set it apart from other associations. I’ve worked in various conference offices going on 22 years now, and while I’ve seen many episodes of great cooperation, I think the Southland administrators and coaches set the bar at a very high level when it comes to working together for a common goal. Our folks get it, or better said, have always appreciated the fact their pathway to bigger things comes through the conference. No one member is bigger, more important than the greater good of the league. Great institutions make a great conference, not the other way around, and we’re in great shape with our members. What’s the future hold for the league?
The future of the conference is very promising. This is a league that has been successful throughout its history regardless of the membership lineup at any given time. Athletic programs have a chance to win in the Southland and accomplish everything at this level within reason. Certainly, we have our challenges, but there’s nothing ahead of us that should hinder our success. I’m always amazed by the great opportunity our student-athletes have to compete, enjoy a great college experience and, of course, graduate and move on to productive professional and personal lives. Competitively, I believe we’ll always be able to recruit quality students due to excellent our warm weather geographic location along the Gulf Coast. In so many sports, we have some advantages that other parts of the country lack. Ultimately, we have presidents, athletic administrators, coaches, student-athletes, community members and other followers interested in being successful and doing things the right way. The Southland Conference is the sum of its parts, and we’ll be as great as the membership will make us. I certainly like our chances!
The first conversation can be found here - http://tinyurl.com/6dtsvrr