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OPINION | WALLY HALL: UCA leaves Southland at the right time

by Wally Hall | February 2, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

Maybe there should have been a red flag last summer when the University of Central Arkansas said it was playing football in the fall even though its conference, the Southland, was not.

UCA had the distinction of kicking off the 2020 college football season, the one many thought wouldn't happen because of covid-19.

On Friday, it was made official that the Bears would leave the Southland and join the Atlantic Sun effective July 1. The league is known as the ASUN.

Liberty, a member school coached by Hugh Freeze, gained national attention this year by beating several bigger programs, but the Flames play as an independent FBS team. The ASUN is an FCS football conference.

It appears UCA Athletic Director Brad Teague got out of the Southland while the getting was good.

Four other teams are leaving the Southland and landing in the Western Athletic Conference.

How it is good for Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin to play away games in California, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is their worry.

That's a lot of travel dollars.

The Southland has been made up of six schools from Texas, four from Louisiana and UCA. Losing four Texas members definitely changes the landscape and maybe kills the league that was established in 1963.

But Southland Commissioner Tom Burnett insists he's hearing from other schools that are interested in joining his league.

Maybe the Southland merges with another conference, such as the Sun Belt.

Of course, this is all about football.

The WAC and ASUN have been basketball conferences to date.

Both may be late to the party, but they know it is essential in the future to play football to survive economically.

Apparently, ASUN Commissioner Ted Gumbart started flirting with UCA two years ago.

UCA is a bit of a secret nationwide, but it has become a big school with growing enrollment. It is a beautiful campus, and it's centrally located just 30 miles from a major airport and a few minutes from a freeway.

Its football team has a reputation of not only being competitive but also willing to play anyone, anywhere. That's why Teague was able to piece together an independent football schedule in the fall.

Travel for the Bears will be more expensive, although not every school in the ASUN plays football.

The ASUN with UCA and new members Eastern Kentucky and Jacksonville State now has 12 teams. The conference mostly is in the same footprint as the SEC and Sun Belt.

It probably isn't a coincidence that some midmajor conferences are looking to make moves to secure their future.

There are murmurs about the Power 5 conferences pulling out of the NCAA and forming their own organization, which would mean the little bit of money they share with the smaller programs would stay home.

If the Power 5 started its own organization, it could be for football only.

The NCAA has little to do with football bowl games, and even less with the College Football Playoff.

Or the Power 5, with little effort, could start its own basketball tournament, one that TV stations and streaming platforms would pay big bucks to broadcast.

Right now, the concern is football. The WAC wanted to play it, so it raided the Southland and convinced four schools in Texas to cross two time zones to play frequently.

Teague must have known what was going on. Even if the WAC had called UCA, that wouldn't be a good fit for the Bears, who have a football program established enough to be coveted by the ASUN.

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