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COLUMN, PT. 2: LU's conference change is the right call

Lamar president Jaime Taylor holds Southland Conference championship rings gifted to him at the announcement press conference, April 8.
Lamar president Jaime Taylor holds Southland Conference championship rings gifted to him at the announcement press conference, April 8.

On April 8, 2022, Lamar University President Jaime Taylor was joined by Southland Conference commissioner, Chris Grant, and even McNeese State University President, Daryl Burckel, to announce the Cardinals’ return to the SLC — the short-lived WAC experiment was over. 

The winds of change had begun to shift more the prior month when Lamar’s then-athletic director Marco Born took a two-month long leave of absence before resigning from his job in abrupt fashion. Between Born’s resignation and former president Kenneth Evan’s departure the prior summer, the two figures who spearheaded the move to the WAC were gone.  

After Born’s departure, whispers began to pick up that the Southland wanted Lamar back. President Taylor caught notice of these rumors, weighing his options before contacting the WAC’s leadership about what he’d heard. Roughly a week later, Taylor spoke with Burckel, who confirmed that the SLC wanted its founding member to rejoin the conference. 

And thus, after just one year in the WAC, Lamar is preparing to switch conferences again. The Southland’s prodigal son is returning home in what is sure to be a positive partnership once again. 

At the announcement press conference, president Taylor emphasized the history of the pairing between Lamar and the SLC as a key reason for the change. Lamar is a founding member of the Southland, which was established in 1963. Altogether, the Cardinals have almost half a century of competition, stories and rivalries in the conference. 

When LU went to the WAC, fans and alumni found themselves googling most of the Cardinals’ athletic opponents. Most people in the Lamar community had never heard of California Baptist, Utah Valley or Seattle University — so why would feel inclined to really pay attention to LU sports? Now, Lamar will be back to competing against their infamous rival McNeese State, along with Northwestern and Nicholls State. 

What do these schools all have in common? The answer is simple. Lamar has history with each one, and LU fans know it. These rivalries are a driving factor in growing fan engagement and overall interest in university athletics. Hopefully, bringing back these historic matchups will get the community more involved, helping remedy the poor attendance that has plagued Provost-Umphrey Stadium and the Montagne Center lately.  

Many people take Lamar’s nice athletic facilities for granted, so it’s a shame they’ve remained empty throughout the past year. If LU students and alumni managed to pack the stands at a home football game, it would bring an atmosphere to the campus that hasn’t been seen in years. In an ideal world, that gameday experience also becomes a positive tool not only for athletic recruiting, but also for Lamar’s enrollment in general. 

It’s important to note that president Taylor mentioned he’s in tune with what the Beaumont and Lamar communities say about the school. In his first year in office at LU, he’s already proven to put the concerns of students and alumni alike at the forefront. The athletic conference debate was one of those issues, and Taylor took the wants and needs of the community into consideration before making the decision to return to the Southland. 

Another key point that Taylor made at the press conference is the geographic locale the Southland schools reside in. The trip from Beaumont to the farthest SLC university takes around the same amount of travel time as it would to go from Beaumont to the second-closest WAC school. 

While the WAC did add other former SLC schools to its ranks in hopes of forming a pseudo-western division, that idea hadn’t come to fruition yet — leaving Cardinal athletics frequently flying cross-country for their games. This was a less-than-ideal arrangement for multiple reasons. 

The first is that road trips to Utah, Washington, California and New Mexico are costly. Flights for the teams, coaching staff and assistants have to be booked along with hotels. On top of the expenses, these road trips often turned into three-day affairs: fly out on a Tuesday, play a game on Wednesday then fly back home on Thursday morning. The “student” in “student-athlete” comes first for a reason, so missing three days of classes each week during the season isn’t conducive in working towards a college degree. 

The second issue with cross-country road games circles back to fan engagement. Due to the hundreds of miles between Lamar and most of their opponents, opportunities to attend LU road games were few and far between in the WAC. That’s no longer the case in the Southland.  

Want to watch the Cardinals take on their biggest rival, McNeese? The drive to Lake Charles takes under an hour, so just hop in the car and go on gameday. How about making a weekend trip out of a baseball series against SLC opponent New Orleans University? The four-hour drive is much more realistic than trekking all the way to the West coast for the WAC. 

Lamar will also be the biggest school in the Southland, coming in at nearly 17,000 students enrolled. While enrollment numbers and overall budget don’t guarantee a winning record in sports (we’re looking at you, Longhorn football), LU will have a chance to rebuild its young football and basketball programs in a conference where they aren’t constantly outmatched. 

As the largest Southland university, Lamar will also get to step in as one of the major players in the conference. In the same respect that professional sports teams look for their “franchise player” to be a star, LU has the potential to be a star in the SLC. Cardinal baseball, tennis and track should step in as powerhouse programs in the Southland — there’s no reason that football and basketball can’t follow suit if all goes according to plan. These programs could become a real cash cow for LU and the pride of the university. 

Just three days after Lamar revealed their plans to move, the Southland announced a partnership with marketing company Troika Media Group that will seek to “rebrand the conference, unify the brand across all platforms and better position the conference for the future of college athletics,” according to the official press release. 

Troika has recently worked with organizations such as ESPN, CBS Sports and power-five conference networks for the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and the Pac-12. The rebrand will include a new name for the conference, new logos and a revamped brand strategy. With a rebuilt brand, the SLC can continue being aggressive in expanding their reach and adding more universities to its numbers. 

Lamar will be at the forefront of that movement. Cardinal athletics will return to its roots, stay closer to home and potentially grow into a powerhouse program, all in a conference actively taking steps to build a brand and reestablish its reputation in the mid-majors. LU and the SLC played their cards perfectly, creating a perfect storm in the process. 

The only downside is that Lamar is required to play one more season in the WAC before entering Southland competition in summer 2023. Rest assured, though — the wait will be worth it. 

Category: Sports