Friday, August 06, 2010

SPORTS>>Sun Belt kicks off big bash of decade

Leader sportswriter

It’s hard to believe the Sun Belt Conference is celebrating its 10th year of football.

For the past 10 years, most people have acted like they didn’t know the Sun Belt HAD a football conference.

Of course I know better than anyone how Arkansas State plays in the shadow of the Arkansas Razorbacks, having covered the Red Wolves for nine-plus years at the statewide daily.

And that goes a long way toward explaining why the Sun Belt just doesn’t seem to capture the imagination and dominate the collective consciousness of the nation’s sports fans. All of the conference’s teams, like Arkansas State, have to battle for attention with higher-profile programs.

Middle Tennessee is overshadowed by Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee, and North Texas has to contend with the likes of the University of Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and so on.

Miami, Florida State and the University of Florida hoard the headlines from Sun Belt members Florida Atlantic and Florida International, and when people think college football in Louisiana they think first of the LSU Tigers and not the Ragin’ Cajuns of
Louisiana-Lafayette or the Warhawks of Louisiana-Monroe.

Like any football conference, the Sun Belt has had its share of comings and goings, additions and subtractions.

Founding members Idaho and New Mexico State are long gone, while the Sun Belt has welcomed Alabama-based Troy (overshadowed by Alabama and Auburn by the way), the two Florida schools and Western Kentucky.

But when such moves are made, they don’t tend to shake things up and have the kind of repercussions seen as when, say, Arkansas bolted from the Southwest Conference for the mighty SEC in 1990.

That defection pretty much spelled the end of the SWC, which finally disbanded in 1996. And people are still wondering how it’s all going to play out for the Big 12 now that Nebraska has left for the Big Ten and Texas has decided to stay, partially because of a new Big 12 TV deal that could pay the school up to $25 million a year.

Has anyone noticed, by the way, that the Big 12 has 10 teams and the Big Ten now has 12?

There are 11 conferences, including the Sun Belt, in the Bowl Championship Series that determine the national champion, or try to. But let’s face it, if you’re not Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC, ACC or Big East, you aren’t considered a traditional, major college player and your odds at winning a national crown are long at best.

But that doesn’t mean, just because you’re the Sun Belt, you can’t have a rich, football-playing tradition of your own. So, 10 years after the football wing of the Sun Belt was founded with Arkansas State, North Texas, New Mexico State, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, Middle Tennessee and Idaho, the conference is asking each current member to submit its greatest players, plays and moments to help honor the occasion.

When the conference began, it sort of had to borrow its history from the incoming schools, shamelessly claiming North Texas’ Mean Joe Greene, for example, as a Sun Belt alumnus.

But the conference has had 10 years to come up with a history of its own, and I know I’ve certainly seen some of Arkansas State’s best times.

If I were in charge of submissions, I’d have to put forward as the greatest play, Corey Leonard’s last-second, 53-yard hail Mary to Patrick Higgins that beat Memphis 26-23 at Memphis in 2006.

The greatest moment would have to be when Antonio Warren shook off a bad ankle and cracked into the end zone late in the game against North Texas to give Arkansas State the most important share of the 2005 conference title and a berth in the New Orleans Bowl.

The Sun Belt also wants to comprise an all-decade all-star team from the rolls of former all-conference players.

I won’t hog space trying to name a guy for every position, but certainly Arkansas State is proud of record-setting passer Cleo Lemon, safety Tyrell Johnson, defensive linemen Corey Williams and Jon Bradley, tight end David Johnson and defensive end Alex Carrington. All have gone on to the NFL, with Tyrell Johnson drafted in the second round and Carrington in the third.

Each of the Sun Belt’s nine football-playing schools has players and memories like these, and the schools didn’t have to be major factors in the BCS equation to do so.

In the long run, it turns out even college football’s have-nots are really haves.