The day that ACU administrators, athletics staff and coaches have worked toward for almost three years finally arrived Monday when ACU moved to NCAA Division I affiliation in athletics and re-joined the Southland Conference, the league it helped found 50 years ago.
"We are thrilled to be at this stage in our transition into NCAA Division I and the Southland Conference," ACU director of athletics said. "I'm very proud of our administrative staff and coaching staff for the work that has been done to date to help ensure a successful transition. Our momentum on the recruiting trails and within our alumni and donor base has been great. People are very excited about the early progress we are seeing in the academic and athletic quality of our first signing class, as well as the excitement around our entry into the Southland Conference. We look forward to continuing our work in the coming years to provide a high quality, transformational experience for our student-athletes at the Division I level."
The move to NCAA Division I status puts an end to 40 years in the Lone Star Conference and more than 30 years as an NCAA Division II member. Monday's move also puts an end to ACU's longtime rivalries with LSC foes like West Texas A&M, Angelo State, Texas A&M-Commerce and Texas A&M-Kingsville.
However, ACU has already scheduled some exciting contests with major NCAA Division I foes beginning with the 2013-14 season. The Wildcat volleyball team will play at Texas Tech on Sept. 3, and will then host the Lady Raiders in Abilene at Moody Coliseum on Sept. 10.
The women's basketball team will play at Texas Tech in late December while the men's basketball team will play a pair of Atlantic 10 teams and an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent on the road in its first three games of the season, and will then play at TCU on Nov. 19.
The football team is playing at New Mexico State on Oct. 26, while the baseball team has road games scheduled against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Arizona and Arizona State. The softball team is also scheduled to play in the Texas Tech Tournament and could face the Lady Raiders and head coach Shanon Hays, the former ACU head men's basketball coach and later director of athletics.
Aside from this year's schedules, excitement also surrounds the unveiling of ACU's new football helmet and the team's Adidas uniforms. Not only that but the upcoming Wildcat Caravan in Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston, as well as the new design on the floor inside Moody Coliseum.
ACU administrators began a thorough study of the university's athletics program in 2010, facilitating numerous discussion forums among faculty and staff while looking into the prospect of moving to NCAA Division I status. The evaluation process was completed in late August 2012 when the ACU Board of Trustees and administration made the decision to accept the Southland Conference's invitation to join the league.
"Today marks the culmination of a three-year process that has challenged the leaders of our university to answer some very serious questions about our direction, both academically and athletically," ACU president Dr. Phil Schubert said. "I'm thankful for the input of our Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university, and I'm proud of the way we have gone about our business in analyzing the best place for ACU within the NCAA. I'm confident that history will show that the decision to accept the Southland Conference's invitation to join the league and move to NCAA Division I affiliation will be a significant milestone in the life of our university."
Also joining the Southland Conference on Monday are Incarnate Word and New Orleans. The addition of those three universities increases the membership in the Southland Conference to 14 schools: Abilene Christian, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, Lamar, McNeese State, New Orleans, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, Oral Roberts, Sam Houston State, Southeastern Louisiana, Stephen F. Austin State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
ACU, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word, New Orleans and Oral Roberts have all been added in the last year to help the league compensate for losing Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State to other conferences. Abilene Christian was a founding member of the Southland in 1963, along with Trinity, Arkansas State, Lamar and Texas-Arlington. Currently, only Lamar is still a member of the league.
When it returns to the league, ACU will participate in 16 of the Southland's 17 sponsored championships, including men's basketball, baseball, cross country, football, golf, tennis, and indoor and outdoor track and field. The Wildcats will compete in women's basketball, cross country, soccer, softball, tennis, indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball.
ACU takes one of the nation's most-accomplished intercollegiate athletics programs into the Southland. The Wildcats have won 64 team national championships since 1952, including 59 in men's and women track and field. With 57 NCAA national championships to its credit (32 in men's track and field, 22 in women's track and field, two in men's cross country and one in men's golf), ACU ranks fifth nationally in total number of national team championships behind only UCLA, Stanford, USC and Kenyon College.
For the next four seasons (through 2016-17), ACU is not eligible for Southland Conference post-season competition for any sport in which the winner is the league's automatic qualifier for an NCAA championship (baseball, men's basketball, women's basketball, football, women's soccer, softball, men's tennis, women's tennis and volleyball) . ACU will be eligible for cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field conference championships beginning in 2013-14 and can participate in the conference golf tournament in 2014, but only as unattached entries. ACU will not be eligible for the league's automatic qualifier into the NCAA national golf tournament. However, ACU is immediately eligible to win regular-season conference championships in every sport.
The Wildcats will begin playing NCAA Division I athletics in the 2013-14 school year. Because of previous schedule commitments, the football team will begin Southland play in 2014, but all other sports will begin Division I competition in August.
Information for this story provided by ACU Athletics.