Lewis: Sun Belt cobbles together a conference

“Give us your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning for a home in the FBS.” — Unofficial motto of the Sun Belt Conference.

The gathering of schools for the New Orleans-based league’s football media day at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Monday probably resent being considered college football’s secondary citizens.

In fact, the Sun Belt collectively ranked ahead of the Mountain West and Conference USA in the 2012 computer rankings.

But how else to categorize a group of start-ups, move-ups and the un-upwardly mobile after a year that’s seen four schools leave and six added, two this year and four more in 2014?

Homeless? Tempest tossed?

To be sure.

The above tally sheet doesn’t even include South Alabama, the lone remaining charter member of the once basketball-centric conference that debuted in 1976, which becomes eligible for the football championship this season; Western Kentucky, the second-longest-tenured member (1982), which is departing for Conference USA after this school year; and Texas-Arlington, which comes on board sans a football program this year.

Maybe then it was fitting that Commissioner Karl Benson — himself only 15 months on the job after an 18-year tenure in the same post with the WAC that saw it go from 16 schools at one point to breaking apart footballwise soon after he left — began his address Monday by pointing out that the Sun Belt is striving for a bigger presence in New Orleans, including staging the conference basketball tournament at Lakefront Arena in March.

That’s the same facility that Sun Belt charter member UNO competes in, although the Privateers are now in the Southland Conference after their divisional meanderings.


Join the club.

“When I came on the job, we were committed to holding on to everyone,” Benson said. “But circumstances beyond our control changed our strategy.”

Those circumstances were the trickle-down effect of conference realignment, highlighted by the breakup and renaming of the Big East.

Tulane et al go from C-USA to what is now called the American Athletic Conference.

C-USA raids the Sun Belt along with picking off Louisiana Tech from the now-defunct WAC.

The Mountain West takes in the rest of the best of the WAC.

And the Sun Belt cobbles together a new group to keep its franchise alive.

It’s nothing new for the Sun Belt. Since 2001, when Sun Belt football debuted, of the 18 schools that have gone from Division I-AA (now FCS) or non-existence to FBS status, 13 were or will be Sun Belt members.

And in the pipeline are Liberty, which could be the Sun Belt’s 12th football member if it decides to make the plunge, along with James Madison, which is in the exploratory stage of doing the same thing.

Obviously, there’s something magical about being in the FBS, albeit at what’s considered its lowest level as opposed to being a traditional power in FCS.

Georgia Southern, which has six I-AA national championships, and Appalachian State, with three, are joining the Sun Belt next year.

“It’s long been a goal of our program and our university to have an opportunity to play at the highest level,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. “As much success as we’ve had in the FCS, it’s still considered small-college football.

“We intend to be a real FBS program and not just one in name.”

New Mexico State and Idaho are at the other end of the spectrum.

They found themselves without a football conference when they didn’t make the cut for the Mountain West. After extensive lobbying, the Sun Belt, to which they both once belonged, took them back as football-only members.

“We had to help them understand what value we brought,” New Mexico State Athletic Director McKinley Boston said. “Otherwise we would have had a real dilemma.”

The Sun Belt’s core remains charter football schools Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana-Lafayette plus Troy, the league’s winningest program since the Trojans moved up from the FCS in 2004.

Veteran Troy coach Larry Blakeney said he isn’t concerned who’s in or who’s out.

“If you want to be in our league, that’s fine with me,” he said. “If you don’t, then I don’t really care.

“But I think there’s been some mistakes made by people who make these decisions. And in some cases, you’re seeing people come back.”

And just in case that happens, you can be assured the Sun Belt will be there as a light by the golden door.