UCA to join Southland Conference in 2006

A much-anticipated move to Division I-AA in athletics at the University of Central Arkansas became a reality on Thursday, Sept. 15.

During a special meeting of the UCA Board of Trustees, Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett extended an invitation to UCA to join the Southland Conference after receiving unanimous approval from the Conference Board of Directors. ?It was pretty clear to our board that we didn?t necessarily have to expand our membership,? Burnett said. ?We decided we would only expand if we found universities that would enhance and improve our conference with qualifications including academic success, a history of athletic achievement, great facilities, a beautiful campus, a great community, media coverage and supportive alumni.?

Burnett said the Southland Conference found all of those qualifications at UCA.

UCA Trustee Conrad Garner said during a board vote to accept the invitation, ?I played football on that field out there. I am very proud of the fact that we?re moving up. It is an honor for me to vote for this.?

After receiving unanimous approval for the move from the board of trustees, UCA President Lu Hardin called it a historic day at the university. ?Southland Conference is a premiere athletic conference. It is a tremendous honor to be offered this membership. We will not only be joining schools such as Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston, but we will also be competing on the same level as Harvard and Yale.?

UCA?s membership in the Southland Conference will be effective July 1, 2006.

In 2004, UCA applied to the NCAA to move from Division II to Division I-AA. The university planned to seek an invitation to join a Division I-AA conference during the five-year transition period. The two Division I-AA conferences with teams closest in proximity to central Arkansas that were considering expansion were Southland and the Ohio Valley Conference.

UCA Athletic Director Vance Strange said it would have been difficult for the university to have made the move without having a conference to join. ?We?re very fortunate to be joining the Southland Conference,? he said.

UCA will only compete at the I-AA level in football. Other UCA sports will compete at the Division I-A status within the conference. ?This means that if we win the conference tournament in basketball, we will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Big Dance. We will be part of March Madness,? Hardin said.

UCA joins the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff as the state?s only Division I-AA schools. UAPB is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Arkansas State University are Division I-A, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock competes at the I-A level for basketball.

The division and conference change is expected to cost UCA an extra $1.6 million annually with $600,000 of that directed to athletic scholarships and much of the rest allocated to out-of-state travel for UCA teams.

Hardin expects to recoup most of the added expense from conference revenues and ticket sales. UCA?s current annual athletic budget is $4.4 million. The average athletic budget of schools in the Southland Conference is $5.6 million.

According to Hardin, UCA will not require any athletic facility upgrades aside from two that were deemed necessary before a conference move was considered. In the near future, UCA expects to upgrade its baseball facility and add a new track to the campus. ?One of the things Southland officials have been most impressed with are our athletic facilities. We will have one of the best football and basketball stadiums in the conference,? he said.

Burnett noted that UCA will also have the only indoor practice facility in the Southland Conference.

As a member of the Southland Conference, UCA will join 11 other schools from Texas and Louisiana including Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, which received an invitation to join the conference just a week before UCA.
During the 2006-07 academic year, UCA will still be considered a Division II team for scheduling and Ratings Percentage Index purposes. UCA will likely receive full league schedules in 2006-07 in all conference sports except football, since many Southland teams have completed their scheduling for 2006. The Southland Conference is expected to assist UCA with football scheduling arrangements for next fall.
During 2007-08, it is expected that UCA will be able to qualify as a Division I opponent for scheduling purposes and, with a waiver approval, be counted in the NCAA Division I RPI for various sports.