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By David Pickle
North Alabama’s recent decision to formally explore a move to Division I complicates an already difficult situation, but key Gulf South Conference administrators say they are committed to finding solutions that will stabilize the conference and Division II football in the region.
North Alabama, currently a member of the Gulf South Conference, last week announced plans to reclassify to Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision. The timetable is not overly specific, and a North Alabama board of trustees member indicated the reclassification depends on whether fundraising goals can be met.
“We have a series of UNA benchmarks to meet, and if you don’t meet them, you don’t go,” board member Steve Pierce told the Florence (Ala.) Times Daily. “It’s a process, and it’s going to be our job to work through that process in the days, weeks and months to come.”
Still, the university is clearly serious about making the effort to reclassify, thus raising new questions about the future of football in the GSC.
The conference was rocked last year when all six of its Arkansas members chose to join a collection of Oklahoma institutions in forming the Great American Conference.
That left the Gulf South with nine institutions, but only five in football: Delta State, North Alabama, Valdosta State, West Alabama and West Georgia. The situation appeared to stabilize a bit earlier this year when the University of New Orleans announced that it would reclassify from Division I, join the GSC and launch a football program within five years.
However, the North Alabama announcement caused new issues for the remaining members, some of which are Division II football royalty. Valdosta State and Delta State both have won Division II football championships, and Delta State reached the title game last December.
Until the departure of the Arkansas members, the Gulf South had been stable for a decade. But the current GSC membership is very different from two decades ago. At that time, the Arkansas schools were still members of the NAIA. Besides the remaining football members of the GSC, other members in 1990 were Mississippi College (now Division III), Jacksonville State (I FCS), Troy State (I FBS) and Tennessee-Martin (I FCS).
The result of all of the change is that the conference is in a different state than at any time in its history, with its football-playing members significantly isolated from other Division II opponents. The situation may be exacerbated, somewhat ironically, by Division II’s regionalization and championship-selection policies.
Pierce, the North Alabama trustee, cited the isolation issue at the time of the announcement, claiming that there are currently 21 Division I programs within a 3.5-hour radius of the school but only five Division II programs.
One athletics administrator, speaking anonymously, said the scheduling concerns are well-founded, at least in football.
Division II championships-selection criteria emphasize in-region/out-of-conference games, but such contests haven’t been readily available for GSC schools. Last year in the South region, Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference institutions played themselves and one out-of-conference game, all against other historically black institutions. That left the South Atlantic Conference as the other option for the Gulf South, and SAC schools generally had other ways to fill their schedules (and comply with the scheduling mandates) without playing GSC schools. Only three regular-season football games were played between GSC and SAC teams in 2010.
“It becomes difficult,” said Jeremy McClain, athletics director at Delta State. “There just aren’t options, and I know that’s one thing UNA probably had to look at.”
Valdosta State AD Herb Reinhard echoed the sentiment.
“North Alabama is one of our chief rivals in all of our sports, but especially in football,” he said. “With the loss of the Arkansas schools to the Great American Conference, football scheduling has become a challenge for us, and the loss of another football-playing institution – yeah, that’s something that we have to be concerned about.”
The matter will be near the top of the agenda for the Gulf South meetings this week in Birmingham, Ala.
Perhaps most importantly, the GSC is seeking new member schools in the Southeast. There have been reports that some Division I programs in the region may be considering reclassification, and talks have been occurring with a number of non-NCAA institutions.
Other help might be on the way.
This year, the SIAC will split into two five-team divisions, which will mean a seven-game conference schedule (four within the division; three against the other), rather than the nine-game schedule of the past. SIAC Information Director Ben Baxter said the move was intended to generate more nonconference games, which will benefit not only the SIAC but also the remaining Gulf South members.
Also, Delta State will benefit from the rule that permits a program to count games against opponents from contiguous states as in-region contests. The six Great American opponents in Arkansas will all qualify.
Finally, the GSC will continue its scheduling alliance with the Lone Star Conference in Texas and Oklahoma, which will help fill the schedule, even if the games are out of region.
None of that fully covers the fact that, at the moment, the Gulf South is staring at a period when it might have only four football-playing members. Other conferences are generally booked with their own games for the last 50 to 75 percent of the season.
Through it all, Delta State’s McClain is remaining upbeat.
“I’m not a pessimist,” he said. “I believe in what we’re doing. But I’m a realist, and I know that we’ve got to take a close look at what we’re doing from a conference standpoint.”