Conference realignment was a huge topic in college athletics in 2010 and 2011. But this primarily involved schools moving from one conference to another.
The Great American Conference simply came into being.
Southeastern Oklahoma, Southwestern Oklahoma and East Central joined six schools from Arkansas to form a new conference in 2011. And, according to Great American Conference commissioner Will Prewitt, the results have been positive.
“We’re really pleased that Year One, with so many uncertains and unknowns, that things went smoothly,” Prewitt said. “There were six Arkansas schools leaving the Gulf South Conference and three Oklahoma schools leaving the Lone Star Conference. Where would we play championships? How would our structures work out?
Prewitt distributed the credit for the success of the conference in its debut year throughout all levels.
“We have an incredible group of student-athlete and administrators,” Prewitt said. “We just have a lot of good people around our league. We have a set of administrators that have really pulled together and have a vision of what they want to create.”
“And I’m really proud of the venues and events that we created for the championships. I think the neutral sites that we’ve been blessed to have our championships at and the events that we’ve been able to pull off are equal to anything that is in Division II.”
The conference has also made the broadcasting of its games a priority.
“We’re also really pleased with the streaming program,” Prewitt said. “We were able to bring virtually every team championship and every contest in those tournaments over the web in a high definition stream.
“And our plans are to expand that next year. We eventually would like to grow that into a television package.
“We feel that we have made it easy for people to follow friends or family that play in the GAC or for alums to follow their schools or just for general sports fans to watch those contests with the production quality of what you would see on television.”
UPS AND DOWNS
But there were some things that the GAC dealt with that simply came with being a conference in its infancy.
“There was some disappointment with the NCAA selection process,” Prewitt said. “It’s pretty difficult to have two years without and automatic bid.
“And it’s unfortunate the way the realignment was done for this first year with four conferences put into one region. There are going to be some good teams left out.”
Prewitt noted Arkansas Tech and SWOSU in women’s basketball and Arkansas-Monticello in softball were teams that should have made to the next level of the postseason.
“But that’s really about all of the disappointment for Year One.”
“That’s going to present some challenges of its own,” Prewitt said.
The GAC will be joining the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Northern Sun conference in the region. The geography of these conferences cuts a path down the middle of the U.S. from nearly top to bottom, almost giving the appearance of bisecting the country.
The far-flung distribution of the schools in the region will make it difficult to get measure of the quality of some of the schools
“We’ll see a pretty good bit of crossover play with the schools from the MIAA, with schools from Kansas and Missouri, and with UCO and Northeastern State going into the conference,” Prewitt said.
“However, it’s going to be difficult to evaluate teams for postseason play with the Northern Sun, with teams from Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa. There just aren’t going to be many games between Southeastern or Southern Arkansas and Minnesota-Duluth.”
Prewitt also acknowledged the potency of the Central region in 2012 and the opportunities that will accompany it.
“But we’re excited about being a part of it,” Prewitt said.
“It will be possibly the strongest all-sports region in the country. But we’re excited to be back in a region where there are three conferences and approximately 35-40 teams and we think that will help us.”
Time itself will help in other ways. During the first two years for a new conference in Division II, it must go without an automatic bid into the national tournament for its conference champions. And Prewitt said that the GAC would of course be really excited to get the automatic bid back in 2013-2014.
With one year in the books, the Great American Conference moves on and hopes to build on what has been accomplished.
“We want to consolidate on what we’ve done in Year One,” Prewitt said. “During the summer we’re trying to wrap what we did in the inaugural year.
Prewitt jokingly added that he’s “really happy to not refer to ‘the inaugural year’ anymore.”
And he’s comfortable with the direction set for the conference and that it is on that path.
“We believe that we’ve set the bar reasonably high this year and we just need to keep pushing forward.
“We’re seeing our teams become competitive regionally and nationally.
“And it’s pretty much unanimous among our membership that they made the right decision and they’ve gotten back to the roots of their athletic programs and what their DNA really is.”
And Prewitt went on to talk of the community of the conference and the ties that bind.
“This is without disrespect to the Lone Star or the Gulf South – they’re great conferences,” Prewitt said. “I think that we just have a great commonality that ties our schools together.
“And we’re excited to bring on Southern Nazarene and Northwestern into our schedules next year, too.”
Both Southern Nazarene and Northwestern were accepted into provisional membership last year. SNU also was accepted into Division II in 2011 and is in its second year of the three-year transition process. Northwestern was denied admittance in 2011, but has applied again this summer
“We’re optimistic that Northwestern will get good news in two weeks from the NCAA Division II membership committee. We’ll just keep moving forward with those two schools.”
Prewitt also addressed the issue that comes up in conversation of the GAC regularly due to the odd number of 11 teams in the fold.
“With our long range plans, there is no one that is ‘in the pipeline’, but we’re always on the lookout and would eventually like to round the membership out at 12.”
Prewitt said that he was excited about the future and that he has enjoyed the trip so far.
“It’s been a lot of fun.
“And with all of our programs, and men’s and women’s basketball and baseball especially, we’re on the verge of creating something special.”
Photos: Courtesy Great American Conference.