An ever-evolving college athletics landscape has led Sam Houston State University to leave the conference it helped found in 1987.
Sam Houston, along with Southern Utah and Southland Conference members Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian, officially accepted an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference on Thursday during a press conference at NRG Center in Houston. The additions will result in the creation of a new FCS football league, which is set to begin play in the fall.
As is seemingly always the case with conference realignment, there are numerous factors in play that resulted in Sam Houston’s exit from the Southland to the WAC. At the forefront, however, is the opportunity to expand financial opportunities while exploring the possibility of FBS football.
“There are a lot of unknowns out there with revenue streams, especially with television,” Sam Houston athletics director Bobby Williams said this week during an exclusive interview with The Item. “Hopefully with a fresh new vision and moving into a new conference, it will help us locally with our sponsors, it will help us with energizing our alumni and it'll improve our basketball association.
“Then there's the football aspect of it. We have the opportunity to be a strong FCS conference, but we're also exploring the FBS part of it. We looked at it 12 years ago, and the opportunity to explore that could expand some revenue opportunities as well.”
Williams believes that, although a move to the FBS would only directly affect football, all Sam Houston sports stand to benefit from such a transition. He also notes that the WAC’s history as a former FBS conference — the league sponsored football up until 2013 — and New Mexico State’s status as an FBS independent could help facilitate this process.
“If you look at the history of the WAC and what they have been until recently, their tradition at the FBS level — and with New Mexico State being an FBS independent — it gives us the opportunity to explore it and really take a hard look at it,” Williams added. “A lot of people want to improve in basketball, and I know the schools we're moving with want to improve that. But if you look at how the conferences are ranked, the FBS conferences seem to be ranked higher in basketball — playing in the Group of 5 so to speak. That's an important thing we looked at here at Sam Houston: how to expand the opportunity in not only football, but in basketball and other sports.
“We've been very broad-based having success across the board, but we all know that football is a great emphasis that drives everything. Basketball is right up there, and at Sam Houston, baseball is a big part of that as well because of our history and tradition. All of that has an impact on all of our 17 sports — not only financially, but perception-wise and how we're viewed as a brand nationally, regionally and locally.”
The roots of Thursday's decision to join the WAC date back to 2006, when Louisiana-Monroe became the first of five former members to leave the Southland in a span of a decade — and one of three to do so while making the move to the FBS.
Discussions regarding conference realignment have been ongoing at Sam Houston for nearly 15 years, with the most recent talks ramping up after a conversation between Williams and Stephen F. Austin AD Ryan Ivey following the 2019 Battle of the Piney
“Our process began almost 15 years ago, when we started looking at how to improve our program, where we wanted to be and who we wanted to align with,” Williams said. “There was so much conference movement in the Southland and exits that were happening that I think was related to FBS football. That's one of the reasons we were looking at it. Then we were able to expand the conference ... so it's been an ongoing situation. As an athletics director, you're always having conversations with other ADs and commissioners and seeing what the landscape is moving forward from a conference membership standpoint.
“A lot of this started when Ryan Ivey and I were talking after the Battle of the Piney Woods last year, about the direction we wanted to go from there. We kept developing our relationship, and because we're so connected with Stephen F. Austin, our discussion focused on the future, the vision and where we want to go. Their emphasis has been in men's and women's basketball — not that ours hasn't, but that's been their focus. ... We've really had an emphasis the last 10 years in football, and that's important to us. So those discussions go back as far as a year ago, then when COVID hit, we continued to look at different things. Then Lamar and Abilene became part of some discussions and it kind of just fell into place from there.”
Williams is quick to acknowledge that the Bearkats are entering unknown territory as they begin to take a deep look at the possibility of becoming an FBS program.
Nevertheless, the potential opportunity to do so played a pivotal part in Thursday’s historic announcement.
“Being able to have the opportunity to build one of the strongest FCS conferences, while exploring the possibility of FBS, was a tremendous factor for me,” Williams said. “There are a lot more questions than answers when you start down that path, but I think New Mexico State being in that situation and some of the other conference movement that's happening plays a role in our approach.”