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Lions announce move to Southland Conference, NCAA Division I FCS

Southland Conference Director of Broadcast and Digital Media Madi Morris and other conference officials were among those present on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce for today's announcement of the athletics program's move into NCAA Division 1.
Mark Haslett
Southland Conference Director of Broadcast and Digital Media Madi Morris and other conference officials were among those present on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce for today's announcement of the athletics program's move into NCAA Division 1.

Texas A&M University-Commerce athletics will begin competing in the Southland Conference in 2022. In football, the move means the Lions will compete in the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.

So long, Lone Star, it’s been a great 90 years. Howdy, Southland! And a big hello to NCAA Division I.

Texas A&M University-Commerce announced today the school’s athletics program will be joining NCAA Division I as a member of the Southland Conference. The university will officially join the Southland on July 1, 2022, and begin a four-year transition into Division I at that time.

Lions football to D1 FCS

In football, the Lions will be competing in NCAA Division I’s Football Championship Subdivision. The FCS includes 15 conferences and is the highest division in college football to hold an NCAA playoff tournament to determine its champion. The current national champion of D1 FCS is Sam Houston State University.

"It is a distinct honor to join the Southland Conference," A&M-Commerce President Mark Rudin said. "This decision was made with feedback from several key constituent groups at the university - led by our student body leadership. Careful and thoughtful consideration was given to assessing the opportunity to compete at the highest level of intercollegiate athletics. As we finalized our decision, it became evident that this exciting initiative is squarely aligned with our institutional mission to Educate, Discover, and Achieve."

Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett welcomed the Lions.

"It is a tremendous honor and opportunity to welcome Texas A&M University-Commerce, a noted institution of higher education with an outstanding athletic history, into the Southland Conference," Burnett said. "We have every expectation that A&M-Commerce will become an outstanding member of NCAA Division I and the Southland Conference, continuing its long championships tradition of competing for league titles and national tournament berths."

The D1 FCS contrasts with the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, composed of the largest D1 universities. The D1 FBS determines its champion in a four-team College Football Playoff, not sanctioned by the NCAA. The University of Alabama is the current D1 FBS national champion.

Step up follows 2017 football national title

The Lions will be leaving NCAA Division II, which crowned the Lions national champions in football in 2017.

The title was the second in school history. In 1972, East Texas State won the NAIA national championship. Other national championships for the Lions include men's basketball (NAIA 1954-55), men's golf (NAIA 1965) and men's tennis (NAIA 1972 and 1978). Prominent student-athletes at A&M-Commerce have included NFL stars Harvey Martin, Wade Wilson and Dwight White; and U.S. Olympic track medalist John Carlos.

"Joining the Southland Conference is an historic opportunity for our institution and athletics program," A&M-Commerce Athletics Director Tim McMurray said. "This decision was assessed comprehensively and strategically, and I commend Commissioner Burnett, the Southland Conference Board of Directors, and the Southland Conference athletics directors for their camaraderie, communication, and engagement over the last month. Our student body and student-athlete voices were prioritized during this process. Their advocacy and leadership absolutely validated this decision."

Unconfirmed reports of the move broke Friday evening when USA Today National Sports Columnist Dan Wolken posted on Twitter that A&M-Commerce had an invitation to join D1 and the Southland Conference. CBS Sports reporter Shehan Jayarajah and Dave Campbell’s Texas Football both posted the information later Friday night.

Southland has Texas-Louisiana identity

The Southland Conference currently has six schools competing in football. Two of them are private universities in Texas: Houston Baptist University and University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio. The other four are public universities in Louisiana: McNeese State University (Lake Charles), Nicholls State University (Thibodaux), Northwestern State University (Natchitoches), and Southeastern Louisiana University (Hammond). Two public universities in the Southland do not play football: Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and the University of New Orleans.

The Southland Conference sponsors championship competition in eight men's and 10 women's NCAA sanctioned sports. The women’s sports include basketball, beach volleyball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, tennis, indoor/outdoor track and field, and volleyball. The men’s sports are composed of baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, tennis, and indoor/outdoor track and field.

The Southland Conference offices are in Frisco, which is also home to Toyota Stadium, home of the D1 FCS national championship game.

Southland Conference replacing departed members

Like many collegiate athletics conferences, the Southland bears little resemblance to its original incarnation. The circuit was founded in 1963, with Abilene Christian College (now Abilene Christian University), Arkansas State College (now Arkansas State University), Arlington State College (now the University of Texas at Arlington), Lamar State College of Technology (now Lamar University), and Trinity University.

The Southland Conference is reinventing itself after the departure of four high-profile members for the Western Athletic Conference. Current NCAA Division I FCS national champion Sam Houston State University and longtime rival Stephen F. Austin State University left this summer, along with Abilene Christian and Lamar. The University of Central Arkansas departed the Southland this year to join the ASUN Conference.

Lone Star Conference loses last original school

The Lone Star Conference, headquartered in Richardson, will bid farewell to its last founding member. The conference dates to 1931, when East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University–Commerce), North Texas State University (now University of North Texas), Sam Houston State College (now Sam Houston State University), Southwestern State College (now Texas State University), and Stephen F. Austin State College (now Stephen F. Austin State University) formed a five-team circuit.

The Lions are the last of the LSC’s original five to leave NCAA Division II. In football, North Texas and Texas State compete in D1 FBS, while Stephen F. Austin State and Sam Houston State play in D1 FCS.

Currently, the Lone Star Conference includes, in addition to the Lions: Angelo State University, the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, Cameron University, Dallas Baptist University, Eastern New Mexico University, Lubbock Christian University, Midwestern State University, Oklahoma Christian University, St. Edward’s University, St. Mary’s University, Texas A&M International University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, the University of Texas Permian Basin, Texas Woman’s University, West Texas A&M University, and Western New Mexico University.

Other former Lone Star Conference members now in D1 include Abilene Christian (WAC and FCS), the University of Houston (American Athletic Conference and FBS), Incarnate Word (SLC and FCS), Lamar (WAC and FCS), North Texas (Conference USA and BCS), Sam Houston State (WAC and FCS), Stephen F. Austin State (WAC and FCS), Tarleton State University (WAC and FCS), Texas State (Sun Belt and FBS). Seven former LSC schools are in other Division II conferences, while four are now in NCAA Division III.

Southland has long history in D-1A, D1 FCS

The Southland Conference moved onto the national radar in the mid-1970s, during which the conference fielded a consistent six-team lineup in football: Arkansas State, Lamar, Louisiana Tech, McNeese State, Southwestern Louisiana, and Texas-Arlington. The Southland moved from NCAA Division II to NCAA Division I in 1975.

In 1976, the Southland Conference was instrumental in the founding of the Bicentennial Bowl game in Shreveport, La., which was renamed the Independence Bowl the following year. From 1976-1980, the game featured the Southland champion vs. an at-large team. The Southland representative went 2-3 in those games (Louisiana Tech 1-1, McNeese State 1-2). Only McNeese State remains in the Southland from that era. The Independence Bowl currently features D1 BCS teams.

In football, the Southland Conference produced an NCAA Division I FCS national champion in 2020 (Sam Houston State), an NCAA Division 1-A national champion in 1987 (Northeast Louisiana, now Louisiana-Monroe), and an NCAA Division II national champion in 1973 (Louisiana Tech).