HOUSTON — Longtime Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett kicked off the league’s football media day on Thursday with comments on a handful of topics impacting the conference.
Among the items Burnett touched on was something of heavy interest to Sam Houston State fans — the team’s annual Battle of the Piney Woods rivalry game with Stephen F. Austin.
When asked about a slight attendance decline in each of the past two seasons, the commissioner pointed to a lack of parity between the teams in recent years. The Bearkats have won eight straight games in the series, which is played at NRG Stadium in Houston — a hotbed for both fan bases.
"I think what you're seeing in that game is a challenge we are seeing across the country,” Burnett said. “That's a unique, special game and an opportunity for SFA and Sam Houston. It's been a little one-sided competitively, and I think the folks at SFA would share that concern that it's important for their fan base to win that game.
"Sam has been on a great streak, and I don't think I'm speaking out of school when I say that it's a concern we all understand. It can't be a rivalry if it's just one-sided. I know SFA is working to fix that, and I know Coach Carthel probably already has his game plan ready to go for that game. That's a special opportunity for the Southland Conference to be a part of, and we certainly want it to continue to grow. Sam and SFA both have wonderful fan bases in Houston, and we think it'll continue to be a good thing. It seems to be a great partnership for everyone involved."
In an exclusive conversation with The Item, Burnett proceeded to discuss the impact that Sam Houston State — who recently claimed its second straight Southland Commissioner’s Cup — has had on the conference.
“I would point to Sam Houston State as a foundational member of this conference,” the commissioner added. “They sponsor just about every sport we have, and have been very competitive for a long time in always looking to be the best they can be. They do things the right way, and have not only a ton of coaching expertise, but a lot of integrity in wanting to do it all the right way. ...
“You just get a tone from the entire athletic program that they're going to compete and be champions in this conference. The proof is in the pudding with Sam Houston State, by taking that Commissioner's Cup or being close every year. That's what a lot of our members are striving for. I think a lot of our members would tell you, 'We'd like our program to be like Sam Houston's.'”
From a league-wide perspective, Burnett also provided insight into the ever popular topic of conference expansion.
While he did not shut down the possibility of adding teams to the conference, which has an odd number with 11 football schools and 13 total members, Burnett noted that the league is comfortable where it currently stands.
“While you never say never — and the last few rounds of realignment have put us in a position where we need to be ready — it's a strange issue where you have to be reactive and proactive all at the same time,” Burnett said. “We certainly inform our members what might be out there with the surrounding landscape and what's out on the horizon. But right now, I think we feel content where we are and don't feel any kind of urgency to expand beyond where we are now.
“13 members is an odd number, and it doesn't work in all scheduling configurations, but I think right now our presidents like who they are associated with. That'll continue, but if change is necessary in the future, we'll address that.”