The Sooner Athletic Conference had another banner year in 2011-2012 bringing home six national championships.
Yet the NAIA conference with has stood strong since 1978 is experiencing a major facelift. Of its 12 member institutions, five are departing over the course of the next years.
Southern Nazarene was accepted into the NCAA Division II process last year. Lubbock Christian, Northwestern, Oklahoma Christian and Rogers State were all admitted in July.
SNU, NWOSU and OC have played their last SAC games, while LCU and RSU will depart after this year.
The SAC is under the strong leadership of John Hudson, who has been its commissioner since the inception of the conference in 1978. Hudson recognized that the SAC, perennially one of the top, if not the top, conferences in the nation garnered this status through more than its athletic prowess.
“Obviously, we had a very successful season (this year),” Hudson said. “I have to confess that some are better than others. But if you look at the history of our league and how well our league has competed across the board, we’ve typically had a lot of success.”
“But I believe that a hallmark of success in our league is that though our schools have been good places for kids to play sports, they’re also a good place to get an education,” Hudson said. “And I’m probably most proud of the fact that a lot of our teams have had extreme success with kids that aren’t necessarily highly recruited, but they are a lot of fun to watch play.”
Hudson said that he doesn’t feel like he is necessarily a mentor, but he tries to reach out to new coaches entering the league that are early in their careers.
“I do try to impress upon many of these young coaches that come into the league that 25 years from now, when they’re older coaches or even doing something else, nobody’s going to remember how many games they won. And they probably won’t remember how many championships they won.
“What’s important is that the kids they coached are out there being productive members of society, and raising their families right. And I think that in our league, for the most part, our people have their priorities in line and are focused and are interested in what’s really good about small college athletics.
“I can talk about all of the championships and I think we’ve been very successful. But I believe it’s a reflection of the character of the people involved. Most of our coaches are teaching and preaching and having their kids learn more about life than just how to win a game.”
The SAC roster now stands at seven, including charter members Oklahoma Baptist and USAO. And Hudson addressed some of the reasons that schools are choosing to try to make the move to Division II.
“The trend nationally over the last few years is something that I don’t believe is a reflection against the NAIA,” Hudson said. “It’s just a sign of the times. Everyone wants to emulate the top programs and the NCAA has always been the top dog in collegiate athletics.”
“The NCAA feels like they can expand their base of schools and can entice a lot of things to the smaller colleges. The growth you’re seeing here is not in Division I, it’s in Division II.”
As always seems to be the case when the conversation comes to conference or national realignment, the subject of money comes up.
“Part of the deal is that they have a very aggressive reimbursement program for those who participate in the postseason,” Hudson said. “The problem is that it is very difficult to get into the postseason.
“But the NCAA does seem to do a good job of sharing the revenue generated by the national tournaments in basketball and some of their events in football. So if you’re a football school, this looks good because there isn’t much of a reimbursement program in football there. The money just isn’t there.”
SAC FUTURE INVOLVES FOOTBALL
The SAC goes into 2012-13 with seven schools that look to be a part of the conference for the foreseeable future: John Brown, Mid-America Christian, Oklahoma Baptist, Oklahoma City, St. Gregory’s, USAO and Wayland Baptist, which is also the league’s only football school.
“We’ve got nine schools in the league this coming season and there will be couple more gone next year,” Hudson said
But Hudson said that this isn’t the number at which the SAC is going to stay.
“At this point, I’m not going to disclose any names, but I’m planning to announce sometime before the end of August a minimum of two or three schools that will be joining the Sooner Athletic Conference and will be participating in the 2013-2014 season,” Hudson said.
“So while we’ve lost a few people, we are aggressively working to solidify our league. And we’ve still got some great schools that have been in our league for a long time. We’ve got a good base of schools.
“And I’m going to announce some pretty impressive additions to our league.”
Hudson also said that because he is expecting football to continue to grow this is an area that he will be working to foster.
“Wayland Baptist plays football and Oklahoma Baptist is going to start next season,” Hudson said. “Those two schools will be the cornerstone. I’m expecting to add another football school, which would give us three. And then we’re going to aggressively go out and create a Sooner Athletic Conference football league. We’re going to sign up some schools to be full members of our league or to play football only.”
And Hudson is working to make the SAC have more than just a tangential presence on the NAIA football map.
“In the NAIA, you have to have six schools to be a full-fledged conference and get an automatic playoff berth,” Hudson said. “If I’ve got three out of the six that I need, then I’m going to have my own league, instead of having my guys go off and play in some other league.”
The ‘other league’ Hudson referred to is the Central State Football League, a football-only conference with six schools from Oklahoma and Texas. WBU is set to compete in the CSFL in 2012.
“That will be something new for the Sooner Athletic Conference to have football. We’re not there yet, but I’m expecting to be there fairly quickly.”
The SAC membership is changing, but the drive and desire to win with character continues to manifest itself. The names will change in upcoming years, but it appears the SAC will remain in the discussion when talking of the top NAIA conferences.
Photos used with permission from OBU and OCU Sports Information Departments.