FAMU switch makes SWAC a ‘power conference’

SWAC Commissioner Charles McClelland says FAMU brings an ‘iconic brand’ to the conference.
Photo by Vaughn Wilson
FAMU football coach Willie Simmons (center) will be coaching his second team in the SWAC.
Photo by Vaughn Wilson

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Charles McClelland didn’t hesitate to say out loud that having FAMU in the Southwestern Athletic Conference will shape how the conference is viewed across the college athletics landscape.

“Our goal is not to be looked at as a Black college conference,” said McClelland, commissioner of the SWAC. “Our goal is to be look at as the best athletic conference in the nation.”

The SWAC increased its membership to 12 schools last Thursday with the addition of FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University. Both teams left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after extensive runs, the Wildcats’ going back 42 years.

Having FAMU and B-CU stretches the SWAC from Texas to Florida. The additions come at a time when the conference is celebrating its 100th year of existence. 

That plus the fact that financial woes are forcing several HBCU athletic programs to shift downward, put the SWAC in a position to take more control of how it generates cash. The outlook is so promising that McClelland didn’t mind repeating the reference to SWAC being the “power five” of Historically Black College and Universities.

When “you talk about power five of HBCUs,” he said, “we are the largest HBCU conference with the most iconic brands.”

McClelland and Kortne Gosha, athletic director at FAMU, began talking about the move to the SWAC in 2020. Soon after the deal was confirmed, B-CU announced it was also making a similar jump from the MEAC.

The Rattlers will play in the East Division, which also includes Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State and Bethune-Cookman.

The West division members are Alcorn State, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Southern, Texas Southern and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

The Rattlers will play in 14 of the 18 sports that the conference sponsors. After football, the FAMU programs are men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track & field, baseball, softball, men’s golf, women’s volleyball and women’s bowling.

The Wildcats  bring 17 sports to the conference. In addition to football, they play men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s track & field, baseball, softball, men’s and women’s golf, women’s volleyball and women’s bowling.

The timing couldn’t be better for FAMU to make the move, said Gosha, who became AD at FAMU in the fall of 2019.

“Right now there are a lot of people with a fist in the air saying we want to support minority communities; HBCUs,” Gosha said. “So aligning these brands together; media rights, apparel deals all of that now is part of the equation.”

Gosha was ecstatic about the move and what it means for FAMU athletics.

“Yes, we are a HBCU, but that’s not our only distinction,” he said. “We talk about the opportunities that come along with this conference and the long-term vision for this conference; it’s really off the charts. We are just glad to play in that sandbox.”

Getting more specific about pluses that the SWAC has now with two new members, McClelland cited events like the MEAC-SWAC Challenge, a recently signed six-year contract extension with the Celebration Bowl and negotiations for a battle of the band competition featuring bands from the 12 conference members as some of the reasons to consider the SWAC a “super conference.” 

The change in how the SWAC is perceived with  two new members that will enhance the caliber of competition and create obvious parity among the programs aren’t the only reasons the league will be looked at differently, McClelland said. Academics figures into it just as much, he added.

“I don’t want to underestimate that point,” McClelland said. “Our academic institutions with the addition of Florida A&M have just added an outstanding business school, an outstanding communications school and an outstanding law school. It’s not just about the competitive side; it’s also about the academic side.”

Football is the obvious big ticket and right away FAMU and Jackson State will open the season in the Orange Blossom Classic. By McClelland’s estimate, the game could draw as many as 55,000 to the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Two of FAMU’s four home games are against SWAC opponents  — Alabama State and Grambling State. The Rattlers’ other conference games are in Huntsville, Ala., Itta Bena, Miss., Baton Rouge, La.,  Pine Bluff, Ark. They wrap up the season with another conference game against the Wildcats in the Florida Classic.

Head football coach Willie Simmons, who coached at Prairie View before coming to FAMU, is expecting solid attendance.

“We’ve got the best fan base in America and we’re going to be adding to that,” Simmons said. “I think our footprint matches the SWAC. I think we’ve been saying that for over 30 years now and we are finally seeing it happen now.

“It’s a great time for the conference, it’s a great time for each member institution as a whole. I think the brand of HBCU football is rising (and) there has never been a better time to attend a HBCU as an athlete or as a student.”

With FAMU and B-CU in the league, attendance could soar over one million this season. Last year 793,835 attended games across the conference. Simmons sees an advantage in those numbers when it comes to recruiting.

“Student-athletes want to play in front of big crowds,” he said. “They want to play on national television and they want to wear the top brands in the country.”

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