FRISCO, Texas – Celebrating a half-century of
academic achievement and competitive success, the Southland
Conference will embark on a special commemoration of its 50th
anniversary in 2013, the league announced Wednesday. The
celebration will coincide with the Southland’s 17
championship sports in the coming calendar year, starting with the
league’s 50th season of men’s basketball, beginning
Nov. 9, and continuing through the 50th football season next
Founded on March 15, 1963, at the Baker Hotel in Dallas, five institutions of higher learning – known then as Abilene Christian College (now University), Arkansas State College (now University), Arlington State College (now University of Texas at Arlington), Lamar State College of Technology (now Lamar University), and Trinity University – formed the new consortium that campus officials at the time stated “will be guided by officials who aim to operate the conference on high academic levels and sound ethics.” Further, officials touted “The Conference hopes to give two states – Arkansas and Texas – a bright new era of added athletic excellence. In addition, the conference will fill the needs of five modern, growing colleges with athletic competition calculated to build an increasing host of fans.”
While the original intent of the Southland founders was to soon add other “like-strength” colleges after the conference’s formation, the original five members remained intact until the 1971-72 additions of Louisiana Tech University and the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), and the 1972-73 addition of McNeese State University brought the Conference into Louisiana, and began a number of membership changes that have included 22 major universities in the South and Southwest since then. Charter member Lamar University left the Southland from 1987-98 before returning, making McNeese State the current longest continuous member of the league.
Other members of the Southland Conference (and the years they joined) include the University of Central Arkansas (2006), Nicholls State University (1991), Northwestern State University (1987), Oral Roberts University (2012), Sam Houston State University (1987), Southeastern Louisiana University (1997), Stephen F. Austin State University (1987) and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (2006). Original member Abilene Christian will return to the league in 2013 following a 40-year absence, coinciding with the 2013 additions of the University of New Orleans, Houston Baptist University and the University of the Incarnate Word. The new 14-member lineup will give the Southland its largest configuration in history.
“It’s a great privilege to be involved with the Southland Conference, an outstanding service organization that’s skillfully handled membership changes and other challenges for 50 years, and has always found achievement at every opportunity,” Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said. “We look forward to a substantial and worthwhile commemoration of this landmark as our membership sets the course for another half-century of success!”
The Southland will celebrate the 50th anniversary in all sports, although many do not yet have the full five decades of competition. Along with football and men’s basketball, men’s tennis, baseball, men’s golf and men’s cross country have been sponsored from the Conference’s initial years. In fact, the first-ever Southland Conference event was a men’s basketball game on Nov. 30, 1963, just days after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as Lamar Tech defeated Trinity, 80-50, in San Antonio. Just a few weeks later, the Southland named Col. Taylor Wilkins of Bryan, Texas, as its first commissioner, a part-time role then.
At the time, the presidents determined that only three men’s sports – football, basketball, and track and field – were to be mandated for all members, and that baseball, tennis, golf or other sports would be optional. Although many of its members were sponsoring women’s varsity athletics for a number of years, they did not become a reality in the Southland and under NCAA governance until 1982-83, when these sports started becoming an important part of the Conference’s history. Within three years, in 1985, the Southland Conference sent a basketball team to the NCAA Women’s Final Four.
The Southland is the nation’s 13th oldest of the 31 Division I conferences, and is the longest-standing Division I league based in the southwest United States. Headquartered in Frisco, Texas, the Conference has been located in the Dallas area since 1987, when the league’s first centralized office operation opened. The Southland now sponsors 17 total sports, nine for women and eight for men, to serve approximately 3,000 student-athletes, and the Conference provides core services such as championships, compliance, media relations, television, marketing and officiating to its member institutions.
The league is governed by a presidential Board of Directors and a representative Advisory Council, consisting of each institution’s faculty representative, athletic director and senior woman administrator. Burnett was named the Southland’s sixth commissioner in 2002, succeeding Greg Sankey (1996-2002), who’s now the executive associate commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. Other Southland commissioners have included Dick Oliver (1971-87), who succeeded Col. Wilkins, Don Landry (1987-90), Bill Belknap (1991-93) and Britton Banowsky (1994-96), now the commissioner of Conference USA.
The 50th anniversary celebration is expected to trumpet the all-time individuals, teams and moments in the Southland Conference’s history, include the selection of all-time and all-decade teams. The league will soon announce an interactive opportunity for fans of Southland programs, allowing the public to also get involved with the celebration.
“We are excited about an inclusive commemoration of the Southland’s record of accomplishment and anticipate a very active year-long event,” Burnett said.
Southland Conference football has been a staple for its members and their fans throughout the last five decades, and the gridiron has provided the league many of its finest moments. The Southland boasts five national football championships, 11 national championship game appearances, 13 bowl games, 48 NCAA Division I playoff victories, 163 first-team All-Americans, 205 NFL draft picks and 48 Super Bowl appearances by its former student-athletes. Additionally, the Southland Conference was the impetus for the beginning of Shreveport’s Independence Bowl in 1976, and the league champion hosted the first five games of the longstanding holiday event. Currently, the Southland serves as the host conference for the NCAA Division I Championship Game, the association’s highest level of football championship, in Frisco, Texas.
Men’s basketball has been another area of high performance for the Southland, as the league can point with pride to numerous ranked teams, four NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances, a NIT third-place finish, 23 total NCAA Tournament victories, nine NIT wins, 45 NBA draft picks (including six first-round draft picks), and two Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame members. Legendary players such as Joe Dumars, Karl Malone, Andrew Toney and Dwight “Bo” Lamar all mastered their craft in the Southland Conference.
Southland baseball collectively ranks among the top 10 leagues in RPI on a regular basis, and its programs have produced dozens of All-Americans and high Major League Baseball draft choices such as Hunter Pence, Chuck Finley, Ben Sheets, David Segui, and Ben Broussard. All told, almost 500 former Southland baseball student-athletes have been drafted into the majors, including seven first-round choices. Among many legendary coaches, Lamar’s Jim Gilligan has more than 1,200 career wins, the sixth-best total among active coaches.
Track and field has always proved to be prominent in the history of the Conference, as the league has produced numerous All-Americans, NCAA champions and Olympic medalists. Southland competitors have won 31 individual national championships, including Northwestern State’s Tracey Rew who won the 2011 NCAA title in the discus throw. U.S. Olympic medalists Earl Bell, Thomas Hill, Al Joyner and Charles Austin all honed their skills in the Southland Conference.
Men’s golf also has a successful track record in the Southland Conference, dating back to a pair of Division II national championships for Lamar in the 1960’s. The Conference has produced numerous All-Americans, PGA Tour professionals, and it regularly places multiple teams in the NCAA regionals and national championship tournaments. Lamar, continuing its longstanding success, has finished as high as third in the NCAA national championship in recent years.
Women’s golf placed two teams in the 2012 NCAA tournament, and the Southland sent a volleyball team to the 1981 NCAA Final Four. Softball is continually a strong sport, as Southland teams have beaten ranked opponents every year since 1995. Women’s soccer, one of the Conference’s newest sponsored sports, continues to excel as teams continue to improve NCAA RPI rankings and vie for postseason berths. Men’s and women’s tennis have also provided the Conference with many meaningful moments throughout its history.
In addition to competitive success, the Southland continues to honor academic achievement with a wide variety of awards, including the F.L. McDonald Postgraduate Scholarship Award, the Scholar-Athlete Award, All-Academic Teams and the Commissioner’s All-Academic Honor Roll. The Steve McCarty Citizenship Award recognizes the accomplishments of student-athletes in the community as leaders and charitable individuals.