Southland Conference: Small Town Hoops, Big City Coaches

25 Jan

The Southland Conference was founded in 1963 and currently encompasses 12 schools from the states of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana.  Housed in its little corner of the Gulf the campuses of the Southland are nestled in small country towns (outside of San Antonio).  For some perspective, the second largest cities in the conference are half the size of Boston.

The basketball arenas in the Southland house 3,800-10,080 people, not exactly lavish facilities, but don’t judge a book by its cover, they play good basketball in the Gulf.    The conference has had its share of success in the NCAA tournament including #14 Northwestern State’s upset of #3 Iowa in 2006.  The conference has a reputation of being one of the more wildly unpredictable conferences in the country, especially in March.

Starting in 2006 the Southland has began bringing in coaches with a background in the bright lights and big cities of college basketball to help further the portfolio of the conference.  Texas-San Antonio hired Brooks Thompson in 2006,  in 2010 Central Arkansas chose former Arkansas Razorback and 1994 Most Outstanding Player “Big Nasty” Corliss Williamson to lead its up-and-coming program.  In April 2011, former Indiana guard and Texas Tech head coach was given the keys to the Lamar basketball program.

In 2006 the biggest metropolis in the Southland, the UT-San Antonio Roadrunners hired Brooks Thompson as its head coach, Thompson who cut his teeth in the Big 12 as a guard for Texas A&M and Oklahoma State, was thought of as a rising star in the coaching ranks after going 39-7 during a two-year stint at Yavapai Community College in Arizona.  Upon the hire Thompson was lauded as a smart, tireless worker who will undoubtedly succeed at the Division I level by Bill Self, Billy Kennedy and Eddie Sutton.

Self said,”Brooks is one of the bright young guys in our profession. There is no doubt that he is one of the rising stars in the game of basketball.  He is a tireless worker and a quality person.”

The man that may know him best, former Oklahoma State head man Sutton said of Thompson, “In my years at Oklahoma State, Brooks Thompson was not only one of the best players we’ve had but one of the most competitive, as well. I have no doubt that Brooks will prove himself to be an outstanding head coach at the Division I level.”

In the last three seasons at UTSA Thompson has gone 56-37, including an NCAA tournament win over Alabama State in 2011, after a 20-39 start in his first two seasons.

In their first season as a fully-eligible division I program the Central Arkansas Bears struggled to a 5-24 record, recording only one win in conference play.  That is not unexpected for a team wrestling with the transition to division I athletics.  But from the beginning the school had a coach they believed in, and the feeling was mutual.

First-year coach Corliss Williamson is a name that may sound familiar to even the casual college basketball observer.  Williamson played at Arkansas under Nolan Richardson and led the Razorbacks to its only national championship in 1994.  Williamson for his efforts was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

After the hire of Williamson, Central Arkansas AD Dr. Brad Teague said,“Coach Williamson made it clear from the beginning of this process that he wanted to be the head basketball coach at UCA.  He was aggressive with his passion for being our head coach, not just a head coach, but UCA’s head coach.

That kind of  commitment is important on both ends when you are essentially building a program from the ground up.  Even after struggling in his first season, coaches across the conference could see that Williamson would make a big difference for the Bears.   Proof of that came in the Southland’s preseason polls as both the coaches and sports information directors picked UCA for a 5th place finish.

This past April Lamar followed in the footsteps of  UTSA and UCA and brought in a coach with a pedigree of big-time college basketball, hiring  former Indiana guard and Texas Tech head coach Pat Knight to lead its squad.  Knight, the son of basketball legend Bobby Knight played for his father at Indiana and then served as an assistant under him both at IU and then Texas Tech, before being chosen to succeed his father in the middle of the 2008 season.

After amassing a 47-54 record at Texas Tech, Knight was relieved of his duties on March 7, 2011.  Less than a month later he was named to spearhead Lamar.  Knight called Lamar a dream come true and an opportunity to build my own program and hopefully establish my own legacy in college basketball.”

Now a school can big in all the high-profile coaches they want, but can they bring that style and that level of success to the Southland’s little corner of the gulf?

Ask Williamson who introduced The Grizzly, a treadmill to his team this season says, “When we see players in a practice or a game not hustling or not setting up for a charge or not getting back on a rotation or saying something extra to a coach when he gets on them, they are sent to ‘The Grizzly’. Forty-five seconds, top speed. Our attitude and work ethic has definitely changed since we started doing that.”  In hopes of instilling a new fighting mentality into the Bears, and Lamar coach Pat Knight has noticed, saying after a recent game, “They have a lot of talent and they have gotten better,” he said. “People asked me why did we want to play them twice right off the bat. Well, they’re starting to play better and I’ve heard about their arena (the Farris Center). They have created a great atmosphere. I wanted to get them out of the way before they really starting gelling.”

Thompson the most successful of the three coaches thus far, 17+ wins over the last three seasons is still working to show his teams what it takes to make it through the grind of a college basketball season and be successful.  Saying “Our urgency has to be there, understanding the day-to-day process of what it takes to win, I think they do have a desire to win; I just think that winning the league, you have to do it day in and day out”.

In terms of winning, one has to look no further than the current Southland standings to see the three schools seem to have made the right choices in bringing in guys used to the big stage.

Williamson’s Central Arkansas sits one game behind east-leading Lamar, even though they were swept by the Cardinals, UCA still has three games remaining with the other two teams ahead of them in the division (McNeese State and Northwestern State). The Bears have already surpassed last year’s win total with 11 games to go in the regular season.  For a team only in its second year as a championship-eligible team, that is a step in the right direction.

Speaking of Lamar, Knight has his team atop the East at 12-7, 3-2 in conference, pretty good for a team that won just 13 games last season.  Knight’s squad faces a good test tonight (1/25) as they host to the team directly behind them in the standings, Northwestern State.

The longest tenured coach of the trio, Thompson has his UTSA Roadrunners second in the West division at 12-7, 5-1 in conference, just one game behind the Texas-Arlington Mavericks who are undefeated in the Southland.  But UTSA still gets its shot at the top team, beginning February by traveling to Arlington and concluding the regular season by hosting the Mavericks on March 3rd in what could be a pivotal seeding battle for the conference tournament that begins three days later.

Beginning in 2006, UTSA started a trend by bringing in Brooks Thompson, a guy familiar with the region of the Southland, but also used to much bigger stages, in hopes he could bring that success to the Roadrunners, he has.  Central Arkansas followed suit by hiring Corliss Williamson for its fledgling program.  This season, Lamar went that route as well with Pat knight.  As March quickly approaches, do yourself a favor and keep one eye on the race in the Southland Conference.   You will hear some names you recognize from not that long ago and you will also see a conference that is tightly packed and hotly contested.   One of the reasons is the closeness of the schools which helps breeds rivalries and animosity, but another reason the Southland will continue to be volatile and unpredictable is the trio of big city coaches bringing their experience, success and work ethic to these campuses with small town hoops.

College Hoop Haven

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