BIRMINGHAM, Ala . — This city may still be the home office of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, but the SWAC is looking west for new markets to conquer.
The SWAC has signed a pair of three-year deals to move its football championship game and its basketball tournaments to Houston. The football game, set for Dec. 7, will be played at the Houston Texans’ Reliant Stadium. The basketball tournaments will be in March at the Toyota Center, home of the Houston Rockets.
Those facilities, plus the ability to bring its premier championships to one of the nation’s largest markets, is what made Houston so appealing, SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp said.
“To go from where we play now to NBA and NFL facilities is huge for our student-athletes and our SWAC fans,” he said Monday at Football Media Day.
The SWAC Championship Game had been played since its inception in 1999 at Legion Field, Birmingham’s historic but aging stadium. The basketball tournaments were played from 2011-13 at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, a suburb of Dallas.
“There was no, ‘We’re unhappy with Birmingham’ or ‘We don’t want to be here anymore,’ ” Sharp said. “It was looking at the proposals side by side and doing what’s best for the conference from a business standpoint.”
Sharp said the SWAC will attempt to build the championships into entertainment events. For football, that includes having marching bands from all 10 member schools perform at the title game.
“We have to get down there and get on the ground and get people excited about SWAC football and SWAC basketball,” he said.
Sharp said the conference received interest from a number of cities — but not New Orleans, former home of SWAC headquarters.
The SWAC released its preseason all-conference teams and preseason predictions during Monday’s media day. Selections were made by SWAC coaches, sports information directors and media members.
Southern had three players make the preseason first team at four spots: cornerback Virgil Williams at defensive back and return specialist, Lee Doss at wide receiver and Anthony Balancier at linebacker.
Jaguars quarterback Dray Joseph and defensive end Arthur Miley were second-team selections. Grambling offensive lineman Clint Marsh also was a second-team pick.
Southern was picked to finish second in the West behind reigning SWAC champion Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Grambling was picked fourth in the five-team division.
“It will be very difficult to repeat,” UAPB coach Monte Coleman said. “It’s a matter of staying healthy. If we can do that again this year, we can compete.”
Alabama State was picked to finish first in the East Division, edging Jackson State 108 voting points to 102. The Hornets tied for first in the East the past three seasons but haven’t played in the SWAC title game since 2010.
UAPB quarterback Ben Anderson was named offensive player of the year, and Jackson State cornerback Qua Cox was named defensive player of the year.
Anderson was second in the SWAC last season with 2,870 yards of total offense and 21 total touchdowns. Cox led the conference with five interceptions; he added 50 tackles and eight pass deflections.
Although it went 3-8 last season under former Southern and Glen Oaks standout Heishma Northern, Prairie View was painfully close to pulling off a winning record. Three of PV’s losses came by three points or fewer, including a 42-41 defeat at the hands of eventual champ UAPB.
But close no longer counts for much at Prairie View, a school that shrugged off its doormat status from the 1980s and ’90s to win the SWAC championship in 2009.
“I think our expectations for ourselves as coaches and fans are pretty high,” said Northern, who’s 8-14 in two seasons at PV. “I think the players have pretty high expectations of themselves no matter who’s out there. ... We look to have a pretty good team this year.”
The Panthers were picked to finish third in the West.
“We’ve got to get it turned around,” Northern said. “We’ve lost some close ballgames but, at the end of the day, all people care about pretty much is, ‘Did you win?’ We’ve to find a way to win those games we lost in the last quarter or at the end.”
After going 2-9 last season with seven losses by 27 points or more, it wasn’t surprising Texas Southern was picked to finish last in the West.
TSU hasn’t won the SWAC since 1968, and it’s unlikely to add to its trophy case this season — especially considering the school is trying to overcome NCAA APR penalties that included a ban from spring practice this year.
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