Four Texas colleges officially join Western Athletic Conference

Kelly Guess

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The Western Athletic Conference will add four Texas FCS programs on July 1, 2022: Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston, Lamar and Abilene Christian. All four programs are leaving the Southland Conference. 

Texas Football first reported the possibility that the four would join the conference in December. 

In addition, Southern Utah will join the conference as a football-playing member in 2022. Tarleton and Dixie State joined the WAC as a transitioning FCS Independent member in 2020 and will finally have a football home. 

“I cannot overstate my level of excitement in making this expansion announcement,” WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd said in a statement, “The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to significantly strengthen the WAC’s national basketball brand and other championship sport profiles, and to bring football back under the WAC umbrella is one that made sense.”  

In order to streamline conference travel, the league will be separated into two divisions, tentatively called the Southwest and West Divisions. The Southwest will feature all the Texas schools. Many non-revenue sports will focus almost solely within division play. 

“The ability to be able to have a divisional alignment is imperative,” Abilene Christian president Dr. Phil Schubert said. “It helps us stay efficient and allows us to concentrate our efforts in the state of Texas. That is a big deal for us. It was a major part of the consideration that allowed us to feel good about this move.”

Discussions about entering the WAC started in March 2020 between Texas schools after Tarleton opted to transition to Division I. The pandemic exacerbated a financial gap between the Texas Four and the rest of the schools in the Southland Conference. 

Schubert noted that ACU would not have made the decision to leave if the other three schools were not on board. The decision allows for historic rivalries to continue, including The Battle of the Piney Woods between Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. 

In order for an FCS league to be eligible for an auto-bid to the FCS Playoff, the league must have six eligible teams. Right now, the league sits at four eligible and two transitioning members, with a fifth in Southern Utah joining in 2022. The league will move quickly to explore adding at least one more football member in order to gain an auto-bid by the 2022 football season, preferably on the Southwest Division side of the conference. 

With the four new additions, the WAC has more Texas members than any other Division I conference in the state. In addition to the five football-playing members, the WAC is also home to the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. The Vaqueros are exploring the possibility of adding a football program. 

“Texas is a big state – we’re not under any illusion that we’re going to take anything away from the University of Texas, Texas A&M,” Hurd said. “The point is we’re trying to increase our visibility throughout the state. It helps from a recruiting standpoint, not just student-athletes but also general student body.” 

In addition to the football side, the WAC hopes to become a top-12 college basketball league that competes for multiple bids every year. Stephen F. Austin and Abilene Christian have both experienced great success as basketball programs in the Southland Conference.

With the Texas Four heading to the WAC, Houston Baptist and UIW remain the only two Texas football schools in the Southland Conference. The WAC has not sponsored football since 2012.

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