The Sun Belt Conference’s “Together We Rise” motto isn’t just hyperbole. It’s proven fact on many different levels, not the least being its place in the hierarchy of collegiate athletics. As the league prepares to celebrate four decades since its founding in 1976, the Sun Belt occupies a “seat at the table” as a permanent part of the NCAA’s 24-member Board of Directors. That alone insures that the conference has a voice in determining the future as college sports continues to change and evolve.
Changing and evolving have been hallmarks of the league since its existence. College basketball might be a shadow of its current self had the Sun Belt not led the way in the establishment of the shot clock. The conference also wrote history at the start of the century when it inaugurated football as a league sport – becoming the first already-existing Division I conference to take such action.
The Sun Belt was originally founded to give home to some of the nation’s premier mid-major basketball teams, and the league’s history is dotted with success in many different men’s and women’s sports through its history. But when the desire for a higher national profile and the desire of its membership brought about football sponsorship in 2001, the conference was figuratively reborn, and now stands as one of the 10 premier college football leagues in the country.
And, with the recent debut of the College Football Playoff, the Sun Belt is guaranteed universal access based strictly on performance. A worthy football team in the Sun Belt can be in the national championship picture, and the league is a permanent part of the “Group of Five” conferences (joining the American Athletic Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Mid-American Conference and Conference USA) that will send its highest-rated champion to a premier Jan. 1 bowl game.
In only 15 years of football, the Sun Belt has earned ties to no fewer than seven bowl games. In addition to the potential of the College Football Playoff, the league has guaranteed spots in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, the GoDaddy Bowl, the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl and the new Cure Bowl for bowl-eligible teams each and every season. Beginning in 2016, the Sun Belt will also be part of a conference rotation that will send teams to the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl and the Miami Beach Bowl.
No football conference in history has ever boasted as many bowl relationships in its first two decades of existence, but such breakthroughs have been the rule rather than the exception for a league that continues to exceed expectations. Just in the last three seasons, league members have recorded 52 non-conference wins including a record 21 victories outside the league in 2013. The Sun Belt also has a winning record over its fellow “Group of Five” conferences over the past two seasons, and has claimed three bowl victories in those two years.
Gridiron success has grown in the league for several years, but success can also happen overnight. New league member Georgia Southern claimed the Sun Belt football title in its first year in the conference last fall. Appalachian State, another league newbie, rattled off six consecutive wins to close the 2014 football season and finish with a winning 7-5 record. Texas State has finished its two football seasons in in the conference as a bowl eligible team, going 6-6 in its inaugural Sun Belt campaign and then 7-5 this past season.
Football, though, is by no means the only hallmark of success for the league. Just this past season, Georgia State knocked off third-seeded Baylor in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and Little Rock defeated sixth-seeded Texas A&M in the women’s NCAA tournament . With the league’s postseason tournaments headed back to the conference’s home city, the “Big Easy” of New Orleans, and a plethora of standouts returning for this season, the league is poised for another successful hoops season.
Baseball and softball continue to put the league in the national spotlight during the spring season, with deep runs into postseason play and high visibility in the national polls becoming a tradition. UL Lafayette’s baseball team was the nation’s No. 1 team in the final third of the 2014 season and has reached the NCAA Super Regional round each of the past two years, while the UL Lafayette softball team has advanced to the Super Regional three straight years including a trip to the 2014 College World Series.
Many league sports have made statements on the national level, and that is a tribute to the university and athletic administrators that serve both the league institutions and the student-athletes at each school. That this level of success comes at a time of sweeping change in collegiate athletics adds even more to these accomplishments.
With those changes, opportunities for student-athletes to succeed both on and off the field have never been greater, and the Sun Belt is well positioned in the areas of scholarship, student welfare and academic success. During the 2014-15 academic year alone, Sun Belt member institutions awarded nearly $50 million in scholarship funds to over 3,084 student-athletes while also contributing over $2 million from the Student Assistance Fund (SAF) to over 1,779 student-athletes.
The league and its institutions rewrite the Sun Belt’s record book each year in grade-point averages and academic honors, and member schools’ success in the NCAA’s APR rankings provide even more proof of the league’s academic commitment. In 2015, the conference doubled the number of teams that received NCAA Public Recognition Awards, given to teams that post APR scores in the top 10 percent of their sport, as 14 teams were among the national honorees compared to seven in 2014.
“We have never been as strong as we are now academically and financially, and I believe we are getting stronger all the time athletically,” said former Sun Belt Conference president and Troy University chancellor Dr. Jack Hawkins, Jr. recently. “I truly believe the best is yet to come.”
The strength of any league lies in its membership, with the Sun Belt’s 11-school football membership including Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, UL Lafayette, UL Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State and Troy. Little Rock and UT Arlington compete in all sports as non-football members while Idaho and New Mexico State are football-only members. Those members give the Sun Belt a mix of the “old” and the “new”, with many long-time Sun Belt institutions continuing to have success and a solid corps of conference newcomers ready to make their marks on the league and national levels.
The varied campuses and locations reflect another league strength – its diversity. The mix of regions and regional cultures provide a rare opportunity for the league’s student-athletes to experience many environments. But those same student-athletes can also experience that without leaving their own campuses.
For every All-Pro linebacker DeMacus Ware (Troy) and Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Charles Tillman (UL Lafayette), and for every World Series MVP David Freese (South Alabama) coming from Sun Belt campuses, there are also U.S. presidents (Lyndon Johnson, Texas State), business icons (Chick-fil-a president Daniel Cathy, Georgia Southern), nationally-known entertainers (Tim McGraw, UL Monroe, and Ludacris, Georgia State), and there is royalty (Miss America Debbye Turner, Arkansas State).
These proud alumni, as well as the thousands of student-athletes and staff members at all of its institutions, are proof that the Sun Belt Conference continues to gain stature and provide the promise of future success with every sunrise. “Together We Rise” has never been more appropriate.