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Is it time for the UL Ragin' Cajuns and Louisiana Tech to be in the same conference again?

The way UL athletic director Bryan Maggard sees it, we’re running out of time.

And he’s right.

All those who have been waiting for enough college presidents and athletic directors to put aside egos to consolidate the Sun Belt Conference with Conference USA in some form may never see a more convincing opportunity than the economic turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Certainly, no one at any level of college athletics voted for the shutdown. But truthfully there’s no greater motivation to accept change like watching 30 to 40% of your athletic budget being drained by a mystery virus.

“I think what it’s time for is for sports leaders to come together and recognize that it doesn’t make good economic sense to put teams on airplanes and fly over schools that you can drive to to compete against,” Maggard said. “That’s the ultimate change that needs to happen in my opinion.

“We’re putting teams on airplanes instead of busing them somewhere, I just think that’s … we’re at the point where if this pandemic hasn’t opened our eyes to the necessity of that, I’m not sure anything will.”

The hope is as money talks, pettiness walks.

Naturally, it can't just be spoken in existence. What has to happen in the very near future, however, is some genuine discussions to finally curtail decades of wasteful spending.

“One, I think enough has happened to where I think we should entertain it seriously,” Maggard said. “But what’s ‘seriously’ to one party might be different than what’s ‘seriously’ to another.”

But as Maggard suggests, if not now … when?

Essentially, it’s two motivations rolled into one.

“I don’t think anything is off the table these days,” Maggard said. “I think conferences would be wise to look at a myriad of options. But ultimately, if you’re going to make decisions like that the number one thing driving it is going to be cost containment and a very close number two would be the opportunities for more fan engagement.”

In effect, save money and create more regional rivalries that increase revenue in the uncertain days ahead.

At this point, there are two ways of at least partially achieving the objectives behind this push. The first method would be an all-out merger of the two conferences in some form.

The second and more limited option could be an alliance between the two leagues that would establish some automatic regional scheduling avenues that don’t currently exist for all the schools.

“Some type of alliance or cooperative scheduling agreement could work,” Maggard said. “But it wouldn’t surprise me that instead of having initially two conferences merging, you may have five to seven conferences really start talking and doing more regional non-conference scheduling.

“It might not be a governed or structured process, but I think this has opened everybody’s eyes that the current business model for college athletics isn’t the best.”

The precise outright merger plan doesn’t seem as important in the coming months as the real willingness to pursue it — not just a polite ear followed by a ‘Yeah right’ internal response as soon as the teleconference ends.

There have been a handful of suggested models for how to merge the two leagues.

One proposal adds Liberty to the 12-team East regional grouping, along with Appalachian State, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Georgia State and Georgia Southern.

The 14-team West side would include: UL, UL-Monroe, Louisiana Tech, South Alabama, USM, Troy, UAB, Arkansas State, New Mexico State, North Texas, Rice, Texas State, UTSA and UTEP.

Both sides would be divided into six-team and seven-team divisions.

Others prefer James Madison instead of Liberty. OK, that’s fine. Again, it’s not time to quibble over such details.

Then there are those that would put the three Alabama schools — UAB, Troy and South Alabama — with the East contingent, while other models split with them up.

Details, details, details.

In my mind, the vast majority of the university presidents should be willing to approve any of those plans at this point.

Personally, I’d do football differently. Why couldn’t you have a 14-team and 12-team football-only league and split the leagues either further for all the other sports?

Football travel is just different. Few are going to balk about UL’s football team going to Appalachian State this fall, but none of the Cajuns’ other sports are flying to Boone, N.C. anytime soon and hopefully never again.

For the other sports, you add the non-football schools like UTA and Little Rock — perhaps even add a few others like a Florida Gulf Coast or a Belmont for argument’s sake to get to 30. That way you could have three 10-team leagues under whichever umbrella the majority chooses in the other sports to further limit travel and stimulate regional rivalries.

It also provides more options to account for some pettiness. For example, if being with ULM and UL is a deal-breaker for Louisiana Tech, the Bulldogs could go west with New Mexico State, the Texas schools and the Arkansas schools instead.

“Ultimately, the majority would rule, but then it’s going to down to the CEOs of those institutions approving anything that the athletic directors might recommend,” Maggard said.

The remaining 20 could then be evenly divided in either East-West or North-South manners.

Practically speaking, how the the 2020-21 athletic year goes financially for the majority of schools could dictate how serious the discussions will get.

But in case you haven’t noticed, schools all around the country are already cutting sports programs. This is no time to dilly-dally.

“What this may take is once the group of five, and maybe even some FCS conferences, determine what their conference scheduling philosophy is going to look like this coming season, that will better allow conference commissioners and athletic directors to start having more serious dialogue,” Maggard said.

The other option is simply form an alliance where a set number of schools from the current Conference USA agree to play Sun Belt schools, and vice versa, in non-conference games each year for the foreseeable future in all the sports.

That watered-down solution might solve some of the problems, but may create some interesting enforcement issues.

“I think everybody will dip their toe in the water for this upcoming sports season,” Maggard said. “Obviously, the sports of football and basketball are already set, but certainly for your diamond sports and your Olympic sports it’s very possible that you’ll start seeing some of that interaction among conference that are regionally close to each other to have their teams scheduling more. And hopefully, that’ll serve as a catalyst for a much larger movement down the road.”


Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.