While Louisiana’s Southland schools step back, others look to play on

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Nicholls 2019 River Bell winners

The news of the morning in college sports in Louisiana wasn’t completely surprising – the Southland Conference was postponing its fall championships.

The trickle-down news of the two hours following that announcement was a little less expected – the five Louisiana members of the conference would not play any non-conference contests in the fall either.

While Nicholls’ scheduled trip to LSU on Oct. 3 had already gone by the wayside because of the Southeastern Conference’s decision to play a conference-only schedule, three other high profile non-conference games were canceled Thursday – opening-week matchups between Southeastern Louisiana and Tulane at Yulman Stadium and McNeese and Louisiana at Cajun Field, plus a Sept. 19 trip by Northwestern State to Tulsa. (Nicholls had added two non-conference games to its schedule, but they had not been announced.)

That’s the story in Louisiana. The story among member schools in Texas and Arkansas appears to be much different.

Houston Baptist, for instance, is still planning to play three non-conference football games – road paydays against North Texas, Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech, the last of which was only scheduled three weeks ago – in addition to non-conference games in volleyball and women’s soccer.

Central Arkansas has an Aug. 29 opener with fellow Football Championship Series member Austin Peay and a recently scheduled Sept. 19 date at Arkansas State.

Stephen F. Austin has a non-conference trip to SMU on the schedule and “intends to explore avenues for fall competition against other institutions looking to compete,” the school said in a release. Lamar and Abilene Christian issued similar sentiments in departmental statements.

Are Louisiana schools being more cautious than their out-of-state conference brethren? It makes sense on a couple of fronts. First, Louisiana’s per-capita rate of COVID-19 is the highest in the country. And in addition to the medical risk, there is a financial risk.

To continue on a path to play three to five weeks from now, once a week testing would cost at least $8,000 per week, per school. That’s based on about 70 players – the FCS scholarship limit is 63 – and doesn’t even take into account coaches and others with direct contact with the team.

“Some of these (non-conference) games are with FBS opponents,” Southland commissioner Tom Burnett said Thursday, noting that many game contracts have been updated to account for COVID-19. “A part of these updated agreements,” he added, “is our programs are going to have to meet the same testing standards (as the FBS conferences).”

Those games canceled by the Louisiana schools Thursday were “guarantee” games, meaning the visitor would collect a nice, six-figure paycheck. McNeese, for instance, was due to collect $225,000 to make a 70-mile trip east on I-10 to Lafayette.

But even with testing at any level, there is still be possibility of an outbreak, and a canceled game, and no paycheck. We’ve seen more than a handful of schools that have had to pause offseason workouts because of outbreaks. One school in the Southland reportedly had more than two dozen positive tests in its first round of student-athlete testing.

Back to the budget for a moment. There were already unofficial divisions in the Southland, separated by the Sabine River. They’re also separated by dollars.

Of the 10 public schools in the Southland (Abilene Christian, Houston Baptist and UIW are private) listed in the 2018-19 USA TODAY database of NCAA finances, the top half in total revenue are the five schools outside of Louisiana. That includes Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which does not play football.

From those 2018-19 numbers, Southeastern has the highest revenues of FCS schools in Louisiana at $13.9 million, followed in order by Northwestern, McNeese, Nicholls and UNO.

The difference in average of the top five and bottom five? Right at $6 million, per year, per school.

That speaks to the job done by in-state coaches who have won and contended for conference championships on a regular basis, despite facing a big deficit on the dollar-sign scoreboard.

Budgets could become a bigger factor if the conference season isn’t played in the spring and the NCAA awards an additional year of eligibility to seniors, which would increase the burden of scholarships on an already cash-scrapped group of schools in Louisiana.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Nicholls coach Tim Rebowe – whose Colonels have won the last two Southland titles – said Thursday night.

“I know it’s a somber day,” Rebowe said, “but we’re going to look to be positive.”

When you’ve successfully scaled the uphill battle as the Colonels and other programs in the state have done, you cannot help but be positive.

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Lenny Vangilder

Lenny Vangilder

Sales/Content/Production

Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…

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