Abilene Christian University expects to begin intercollegiate competition in the Western Athletic Conference in 2021, joining four other NCAA Division I institutions making a milestone move to the WAC, it was announced today in a press conference at the NRG Center.
ACU will transition from the Southland Conference – a league it co-founded in 1973 and rejoined in 2013 – along with Lamar, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin, and Big Sky Conference member Southern Utah.
All five universities have planned to join the WAC July 1, 2022. The remaining Southland members, however, exercised their ability to accelerate the exit of the ‘Texas Four” a year early. ACU, Lamar, SHSU and SFA are petitioning the WAC Board of Directors for entry July 1, 2021, instead. Southern Utah is still expected to join in 2022.
“I cannot overstate my level of excitement in making this expansion announcement,” said WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd. “The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to significantly strengthen the WAC’s national basketball brand and other championship sport profiles, and to bring football back under the WAC umbrella is one that made sense.”
Hurd said the result could not have been accomplished without the collaboration and shared visions of the WAC’s Board of Directors and presidents of incoming institutions. “It not only stabilizes the conference for the future; it also positions it for significant growth and success,” Hurd added.
The expanded WAC will host competition for championships in two divisions. A Southwest Division will be composed of ACU, Lamar, SHSU, SFA, Tarleton State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley. A new West Division will feature California Baptist, Dixie State, Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, Seattle, Southern Utah and Utah Valley universities.
“This is a historic move for ACU. We are excited about joining a conference with the WAC’s history and visibility,” said Dr. Phil Schubert, ACU president. “The brand equity and recognition of the league remains strong and will benefit us regionally and nationally as we attract both students and student-athletes.”
Schubert cited several compelling reasons for the change, including continued emphasis on academic and athletics excellence; an expanded geographical reach into the West, especially in major U.S. markets; increased TV and tournament exposure; and automatic bids to national championships and postseason play.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for ACU to continue to grow its programs and establish itself on the national stage,” said director of athletics Allen Ward. “In addition to the positive impact on recruiting, we will realize benefits from the continued association with Texas institutions, new partnerships that pursue common Division I goals, and the strategic efficiencies of divisional play.”
The WAC currently crowns team and individual champions in 19 sports – nine men’s and 10 women’s.
The conference was founded in 1962 by Arizona, Arizona State, Brigham Young, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Many other prominent Division I universities have been members through the years, including TCU, SMU, Rice, Texas-El Paso, Tulsa, and the Air Force Academy.
WAC teams have won 32 men’s Division I national championships, including Brigham Young’s 1984 Associated Press football crown when it defeated Michigan in the BCS Holiday Bowl. Eighteen times a WAC women’s team has won a Division I national title.
Football plays a strong role in reorganizing the conference, which sent teams to three Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl games from 2007-10, and will have restored competition in 2022 for the first time in a decade. The WAC will compete at the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) level where all the newest members currently play.
The Texas Four have deep histories in the sport: ACU (which began playing in 1919), SHSU (1912), Lamar (1923) and SFA (1923) are familiar foes in the Lone Star State. Sam Houston has played deep into the FCS playoffs seven of the last 10 seasons, Lamar appeared in 2018, SFA in 2014, and Southern Utah has qualified three times since 2011. SFA or SHSU student-athletes have won FCS national player of the year honors three times since 2010.
ACU, which plays its 100th season in football this fall, has sent 42 Wildcats to the NFL – including College Football Hall of Fame inductee, all-pro running back and two-time Super Bowl-winning assistant coach Wilbert Montgomery – and has produced two national championships, record-setting quarterbacks and the longest field goal in history.
The new WAC promises to be a powerhouse basketball conference, having sent at least two men’s teams to the NCAA Tournament in 28 of the past 45 seasons. In women’s basketball, the conference has had at least two teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament 10 times in 28 seasons, with a record five teams in 1998.
SFA and ACU bring standout basketball programs to the WAC. The Wildcats were one of just three teams in the nation in 2019 to qualify men’s and women’s teams for the NCAA Tournament, and the Lumberjacks’ men’s team has appeared in March Madness five times since 2009. Since 2018, ACU has the 11th most combined wins (109) in Division I by its two basketball programs. Its men’s team is among national leaders in several defensive categories and currently ranked 13th in the collegeinsider.com Mid-Major Poll.
In baseball, the WAC has boasted two College World Series champions since 2003, and five others from 1965-77.
Only four universities, including Stanford, USC and UCLA, have won more national team championships than Abilene Christian. The Wildcats have 64, led by its heritage-rich track and field program, which has generated 39 Olympians, a Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, and was named Texas Sports Dynasty of the Century by Texas Monthly magazine in 1999.
“The potential for WAC basketball, the return of WAC football, and the promise for all Wildcat sports is exciting. Competition will be challenging, but I believe we are positioned well for this move,” Ward said.
“In addition to our strong, successful athletics program, Abilene Christian brings an exceptional academic reputation that has seen increased national recognition these last few years,” Schubert said. “Special things are happening here and being a part of this conference realignment just adds to the momentum for our university.”
See acu.edu/wac for more information about Abilene Christian and its move to the WAC.