By Felix Cunningham
The future is looking bright for the Southwestern Athletic Conference, as they revealed a new future for the conference’s football programs at SWAC Media Day. The conference announced the creation of the Celebration Bowl, a matchup between the SWAC and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions on December 19 in Atlanta, Ga.
One program that is ready compete in the inaugural SWAC-MEAC contest is Southern University. The Jaguars were relieved they were released from the academic progress rate (APR) issues that plagued the team for the past two seasons.
“These boys are ready to lace up their boots and show their true potential on the field,” head coach Dawson Odums said.
With two returning players—specialist Willie Quinn and Randall Menard—back from injury, hopes are high on the Bluff. The Jaguars’ roster will finally be complete, and the SWAC championship and a Celebration Bowl bid grasp now seem more viable.
For a very long time, SWAC schools did not mention their APR scores with extreme pride.
Southern, Grambling, Texas Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Alabama State, and Mississippi Valley all had select departments or athletic programs as a whole struggle to achieve a 930 APR score or better. For Southern, this led to a cancellation of spring football practice earlier this year.
SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp remembered the call that the NCAA gave to strengthen the APR score and he feared that meeting the numbers would be a lengthy process around the league.
“You kind of knew that if we didn’t jump on it that it would affect (the SWAC) really badly,” said Sharp, “But for some unforeseen reason we didn’t. We took a wait and see approach to the situation instead of being proactive. Looking back on it, I wish we really wouldn’t have done it.”
Acting Southern Athletic Director and head basketball coach Roman Banks remarked that even though the road to APR freedom was hard, it’s now behind Southern.
“You’re always going to have something to tie you down, but with that, I and the hardworking people here had to do what was best and that’s fix the issues we had,” said Banks, “Now that’s over, and we can look for the very bright future in our athletic program.”
A patient directive from the NCAA increasing standards and the work from the SWAC office and its member schools brought the conference back to its significant marks.
“I think the administrators from the programs have done a remarkable job and focuses more on understanding the APR. The NCAA and its administrators have walked us through the process,” Sharp said. “We have an APR task force and a new group of athletic directors and senior women’s administrators focused on bettering the APR. When you look at the SWAC Championship and the Celebration Bowl, you don’t want to just sit around and say, ‘We are on a postseason ban, so we can’t participate in those events.’”
Odums figures that it will be easier in the future to recruit a championship level squad without having APR related questions.
“We had a good recruiting class even with it,” said Odums. “It relieved some of the tension recruits might have with you that you’re off postseason bans, you’re graduating players and you’re improving APR. All those things help. Recruits look at you and say, ‘I can consider going there; they’re doing things the right way.’”
For the first time in a long time, it seems that everyone can look at the SWAC this way.