Movin' on up
Abilene Christian prepares for the jump to Division I.
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There has been palpable excitement and anticipation around the campus of Abilene Christian University since it announced it would be moving up to NCAA Division I affiliation and the Southland Conference on July 1.
Although the football team will play an 11-game independent schedule in 2013, because of previous commitments, the Wildcats will still be a member of the Southland. The school has not been independent since the 1962 season. Under NCAA Division I rules, the ‘Cats aren’t eligible for Southland postseason competition in any sport until 2017-18, the school’s fifth year as a Division I member.
The DI football era officially began when the Wildcats strapped on their helmets and hit the field at the Wally Bullington Practice Facility for the start of spring drills on March 19. It was the first time since the summer of 1973 that the team walked onto the field as members of a league other than the Lone Star Conference.
Head coach Ken Collums is entering just his second season at the helm of the ‘Cats. The former offensive coordinator is still adjusting to his new role and must now learn how to maneuver a DI program.
“There is a different weight on your shoulders when you move from a coordinator to head coach,” Collums said. “The second round is usually better but my second round is another new experience. Our school and athletic program have been in transition for several years now because of the move to block tuition and now we’re going to the Southland Conference.”
“There’s a different geography that you look at when you do business now. You do things a little bit earlier in recruiting at the Division I level and there is a little more drama to it. It’s very competitive. Ultimately though, we’re a better fit in the Southland than we were in the Lone Star because of the direction we’re going academically."
Collums said the biggest roadblock will be gaining depth.
“We have to get enough depth in order to play a Southland schedule and be competitive,” he said. “We’re not there yet. But once we start playing those schools and have a chance to make the playoffs, our depth should be in place.
Collums’ staff is also learning on the fly. They have to be more conscientious of how much recruiting time and recruiting funds they are spending on their players.
“My staff is very thorough,” Collums said. “They are sharp at what they’re doing and they’re recruiting the right kids.”
Director of athletics Jared Mosley and assistant director of athletics for operations John Houser had the tough job of finding all 11 opponents for ACU in 2013 instead of just two or three non-conference matchups.
The highlight of the 2013 schedule will be a trip to New Mexico State on Saturday, Oct. 26. The Aggies are currently a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level and have been since 2005. However, the WAC will no longer sport football beginning this year, so the Aggies will also play an independent schedule.
Although NMSU went 1-11 last season, it will be ACU’s first game against a FBS school since a 40-point shutout loss to Hawaii in 1980. Abilene Christian is 9-36-1 against traditional FBS programs.
The ‘Cats will open the season when they host Concordia College (Ala.), an NAIA program, on Aug. 31. The Hornets will be making their first trip to Abilene. The next two games are also at home and include a cross-town matchup with McMurry University on Saturday, Sept. 7.
The team then hits the road for four-straight weeks. Their first test away from home might also be their toughest game of 2013 as ACU travels to Normal, Ill., on Sept. 21 to face FCS powerhouse Illinois State University. ISU is a Missouri Valley Conference school who finished third and qualified for the FCS playoffs. The Redbirds lost to Eastern Washington in the quarterfinals.
A week later, the Wildcats will play former Lone Star Conference foe Tarleton State University at FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco. The squad will close out the year against University of the Incarnate Word, also transitioning to DI and the Southland Conference, and Prairie View A&M. Both contests are road games.
“You can’t microwave or speed up this process,” Collums said. “Much like a business, you have to grow a FCS program and that can take time.”
Edward Isaacs is a special contributor Dave Campbell's Texas Football and TexasFootball.com.