The presidents and chancellors of the Sun Belt schools in 1998 were facing yet another round of changes.
The league had been hit hard by the formation of the Great Midwest Conference and the survival oriented expansion of the Metro Conference. The Sun Belt had been basically co-opted by the American South. The changes had failed to bring stability as Lamar and Jacksonville departed for smaller regional conferences. UT-Pan American (now UT-Rio Grande Valley) had taken the hint and left the conference in the wake of its second major NCAA scandal, one that could have brought the infamous Death Penalty. Commissioner Craig Thompson had left to take over as commissioner of the Mountain West.
It sounds foreign to the modern reader, but basketball was a major force in realignment at the time. The Big East had added football but was cautious about any of the football only members being part of the more lucrative basketball league. Football’s unquestioned dominance in the realignment landscape was still a few years away.
In that environment, the Sun Belt adding two schools without football, Florida International and Denver seemed a logical move. Yet a short time later the league presidents and chancellors were sitting down with their new commissioner Wright Waters to discuss what the future of the Sun Belt should look like.
The new vision for the Sun Belt was football, a surprising decision to many. The nine-member circuit only had three I-A schools and only one I-AA member. The majority did not play football at any level.
Football’s landscape was changing. The Big West’s non-football California-based schools were growing frustrated with repeated expansions just to preserve football that were sending them to Moscow and Boise, Idaho and Denton, Texas. Middle Tennessee State was looking to move I-A while vowing to remain in the Ohio Valley for other sports. Central Florida, a former member had finally upgraded football to I-A after delaying the move.
While Arkansas State, Louisiana Lafayette, and Louisiana Tech had wanted to add football the half-hearted effort had stalled a died with UCF’s delay moving up and dispute over the league’s television deal.
Football would only work if it became a priority to add it as a league sport. The non-football members were being asked to take the same risk that seemed to be pulling the Big West apart and would later contribute to the Big East splitting.
Sun Belt football started in 2001 and was mostly awful and what interest it drew was negative with North Texas winning the league tiebreaker to go bowling at 5-6 a result that perfectly summed up the start-up league’s woes. New Mexico State led the league in attendance drawing 18,845 per game more than ULM and UL Lafayette combined as neither topped 10,000.
In 2015, four Sun Belt schools topped 20,000. Founding football members AState and ULL (who combined drew 20,232 in 2001) and new members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
The league had one bowl tie in 2001 and now has five bowl ties.
More significantly, the league should top Conference USA in 2016 in conference revenue per team and is finding more opportunities for television.
The conference is being tapped for more telecasts, coaching salaries that once hovered around the level of the MAC now rival CUSA.
The league that once a lifeboat for any school needing a home and willing to field a football team has turned down overtures from UMass for football only membership and terminated the football only membership of NMSU and Idaho. Three schools posted only four league wins total over the past two years, Idaho, NMSU and ULM. The first two leave after the 2017 season. Georgia State who failed to win a conference game in 2014 has won more league games over the two-year span with five and a bowl bid.
Only two Sun Belt football schools have budgets below $21 million, ULM and Idaho and Idaho has been shown the door.
Of the nine schools making that commitment to make the Sun Belt a football league, four remain. La Tech left before football was added. FIU and WKU became FBS schools and moved to CUSA. Denver and New Orleans left ahead of a league mandate requiring members to play 15 conference sports.
South Alabama added football and became the fastest program from start to bowl game playing in the 2014 Camellia Bowl. Football isn’t on the horizon for UALR but both of their NCAA basketball appearances in 26 years of Sun Belt membership have come since football became part of the league and their first round win this year helped the Sun Belt stay even with CUSA in post-realignment NCAA units earned.
In hindsight it was an easy decision but it was a hard choice to make and in all likelihood South Alabama, Georgia State, FIU, and FAU wouldn’t have football today and Western Kentucky, Appalachian State, and Georgia Southern would still be in FCS and who knows if the WAC would have survived long enough for Texas State to move up or UTSA to add football. Given the shaky state of the schools, there is no guarantee that AState, ULL, ULM, North Texas, MTSU, or Troy would still be playing FBS today.
The Sun Belt has taken more than its share of bad press that is now starting to shake off, but without football, the Sun Belt would likely be a southern version of the Summit League struggling to get anyone to notice it exists.