Increased attendance, home games versus major conference teams lift Sun Belt
A morbid mood fell over the Sun Belt Conference in the fall of 2001, consuming both the league commissioner and the member institutions."I was about ready to cut my throat," commissioner Wright Waters recalled of the Sun Belt's first football season in Division I-A. "I was starting to think that we might not be able to do this."
"The 11 state universities signing about 18 a year will end up signing about 135, 140 out of that 370. [The others] have to look for a scholarship someplace, somewhere."Many more of them are winding up at Sun Belt schools. "There are five great recruiting areas in this country: Southern California, that coal-steel belt through Western Pennsylvania and Ohio, Louisiana, Texas and South Florida," Waters said. "We've got three of those in our league, so we may not get the blue-chipper that's going to LSU, but there's a bunch of other athletes in Louisiana. Same thing in Florida. "You start looking at the rosters of our schools and all of a sudden Arkansas State has kids from Florida; Middle Tennessee has kids from Florida. That wasn't true seven years ago." Sun Belt schools are luring more BCS teams away from their stadiums, but getting true home games remains a challenge. Last year Middle Tennessee had to play Louisville in Nashville and Arkansas State played Oklahoma State in Little Rock. Missouri visited Troy in 2004 and lost 24-14, but last year the Tigers played a neutral-site game against Arkansas State. The Indians were the home team. In Kansas City. "I don't particularly like the neutral-site games," Stockstill said. "They need to come to our place."
I don't know if we've had a weekend where we've had this many nonconference D-I home games on the schedule. Obviously, that's crucial to us winning."
Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts
"There was a sense of urgency," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said of his players. "Being on the road twice and losing to two SEC teams was part of the motivation, wanting to put your best foot forward, especially at home. It didn't matter who came.
"There's a little respect there, hopefully, for the league."Waters wants a lot more three years from now. When the league launched, he set 2010 as a target date for full-blown success.
"Our objective by 2010 is to be the best nonguaranteed league out there," he said. "You measure that by playing these people and winning these games."Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.