Q&A: United Athletic Conference executive director Oliver Luck sounds off on first season
So what are your general, top of head thoughts on the conference so far?
Right now we’re obviously in the middle of the season and I think things are going well. Central Arkansas is playing some good football. Austin Peay and EKU are up there no surprise. They both have solid coaches – Austin Peay might be a little bit of a surprise. I think overall its going well. I would say some rivalries are being created given that some of the schools aren’t necessarily familiar – take the two Utah schools, they aren’t necessarily familiar with schools from the ASUN but by and large it’s gone pretty well. We’re tracking all sorts of things not just related to game play but attendance, all that sort of stuff. I think we’re pleased with the progress that the conference has made and it’s also about building the identity of the conference and that’s been a positive but it’s going to take a while as well – I think we’re realistic about that.
As far as the operations behind closed doors, how do you think all of that is running so far?
I think that’s going well. I hate to cross fingers, but I don’t want to say something and then have an operational faux pas take place, but I think we’ve done a nice job. We’re all virtual. There’s really only a couple of what I would call full-timers – one is Brian Morgan, the former ASUN PR person who is now working for the UAC. Kyle Grooms still has some WAC responsibilities particularly in the football offseason but he’s on full-time during the season. Then we’re leaning on a few other folks to work with us in terms of compliance and accounting and those other issues. But by and large things have worked pretty well. So far the worst problem we’ve had, I suppose up to this point, was the rental car for the referees - when they landed in Vegas and stopped for lunch it got broken into. But there’s not much you can do about that, right?
What’s been the biggest challenge for you personally in heading this new conference?
I think it’s just getting everyone familiar with everybody else. Like the same thing that’s happening over in the Ohio Valley with their joint conference if you will – it’s getting people accustomed to each other. More or less, conferences do the same thing in terms of how they operate but there’s always a handful of idiosyncrasies. So essentially getting the ADs, presidents and coaches comfortable with each other, particularly given there just hasn’t been that much history between the football schools in the WAC and ASUN. And you’ve got obviously a new ASUN commission, Jeff Bacon, and Brian Thornton will do the WAC, but this is maybe his second year, third year, he hasn’t been there forever like some of the FCS commissioners. So, I think it’s just getting folks accustomed to each other and how they are all operating but so far, so good. Again, knock on wood, I don’t want to jinx anything, but things have been pretty smooth.
As far as the quality of your institutions go with football, have you been impressed with the quality of their output?
I have. I mean they are all in a little bit of a different spot, particularly when you consider like an Austin Peay that dropped the sport for a while. But the red thread that holds them all together in my estimation is the aspiration they all have to improve their programs. They are all starting from somewhat of a different spot – some transitioning, etc. – but they are very aspirational. They’ve got what I would call big dreams. The fascinating thing for me at least is you have some of the institutions, like Tarleton for example, part of the A&M system – that’s a massive system with a lot of resources. And A&M, the system, has effectively targeted Tarleton as a school that can move up. Not just athletically but academically. As you may know, Texas is growing fast as a state and both the A&M and UT systems have capped enrollment at their flagships. So a lot of the other members of those systems are being prepared to pick up the slack, if you will… And Tarleton is in that position as far as the A&M system. Stephen F. Austin, which has always been an independent institution with its own board, they joined the UT system. UTRGV, which will start football next year in terms of practicing and all that - they are part of the massive systems. So there’s a lot of that happening in the background as far as how the expectations have been ratcheted up for those institutions not just for football, but overall.
When you mention that, it makes me wonder – do you feel as though the teams and schools in your conference are on an even playing ground?
It’s a good question. I would say that based off of what I’ve seen – and what are we? Week 6? – there are certainly some that, infrastructure wise, let’s just say have a lot of work to do. North Alabama has some significant work to do, Southern Utah in terms of their stadium, they’ve got some work to do. What they have is functional and gets the job done, but as people say all the time, they are high school venues in Texas. There are a lot of high schools in Texas with facilities nicer than what some of our institutions have but I would say that there is no difference in the parity amongst our schools than you would find in any other conference. Everybody has a certain level of disparity they have to deal with. Whether that’s an urban school versus a rural school, academic rankings, etc. and there’s still significant facility issues – not so much in Power 5, but even in the Group of 5. That’s almost inevitable. I guess I would say I’m not sure that’s affected at all, based on what I’ve seen, the competition that we’ve seen up to this point.
As far as facility upgrades, is that something that you guys as a conference will work together with the schools on tackling in order to better your image or is that something the schools have to work through personally?
The conference can certainly help. For example, Kyle (Grooms) and I went up and spent a day with JMU. If anybody has made the transition well, it’s James Madison. Their head coach is a former teammate of mine at West Virginia, Coach Cignetti (Frank Cignetti Jr.). But anyways, we spent a day up there with their staff, Jeff Bourne who just announced his retirement but longtime AD there, and we learned some good lessons about how they approached it. They did a fantastic job; they might win the Sun Belt in their second year competing there. There are great aspirational models that we can look at, our schools can look at it, we can do it together, we can help where needed. There’s also a variety of methods that schools can use to fund stadiums and we can be helpful there but ultimately that’s going to come down to ultimately a school’s decision because it’ll cost dollars. For example, North Alabama has tons of drawings and models in terms of what their venue could look like, but ultimately the institution has to pull the trigger.
You mention UTRGV, talking with Coach Bush (Travis Bush), how is their process moving along?
I think it’s going well. It’s really unprecedented. I’ve been involved in some football startups at the professional level – NFL Europe and the XFL back in 2020 – and I really have an appreciation for hard it is to start a program, or a league in my case. But Travis is excellent, he’s got a great reputation, people know him down in the valley. As I’ve said to a lot of people, never bet against football in the state of Texas. There is just a deep well of talent in the state and a lot of people are dipping their bucket into Texas for recruit but as long as Travis can compete with those folks, and I think he can, there’s no reason he can’t. And the valley is a fascinating place as well. Not a lot of people know about it, quite honestly, but my sense is so far so good, but the proof is in the pudding when they start putting pads on and playing others.
As far as the operations of the game – the referee crew you put together, replay systems, game flow – how have you thought about that so far?
So far, so good. Matt (Young – coordinator of football officiating) does a great job with the teams. As I mentioned, the toughest issue we had was getting the car broken into and having to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy some shoes or whatever for the refs. But the equipment has been fine, there’s still some venues that probably need some additional cabling. DVSport does a great job, as they do all across the country. I think we’re in pretty good shape there.
To become a top FCS conference like the Missouri Valley Conference or the Big Sky, what more do you think needs to take shape?
That’s the aspiration, to be the best FCS conference we can be, and you mentioned a couple that are excellent and are there. It’s winning football games during the non-conference portion of the schedule, beating some of those Missouri Valley teams or Big Sky teams depending on where you are and its continuing to recruit and invest. I’ve been impressed with the quality of our coaches. Our athletic director sand presidents are very competitive and so it’s just investing and making the right decisions with those investments and being as competitive as we possibly can./ We have central Arkansas in the top 25, we have a couple schools Austin Peay and EKU getting votes in that top 25, we’d love to see the western part of our league pick up their game and start to make some noise, but it’ll happen. Everyone is on a little bit of a different timeline.
Now there have been some rumors that you want to and some that say you don’t – but as far as moving to the FBS, aside from the new rules announced to make that jump – is that something your member schools and administration want to pursue?
I think that every school is in a little bit of a different situation as I’ve mentioned. Some can get some significant support to fall back on from their systems, others don’t have that luxury. So I think every school is in a different spot. Our immediate aspiration is to be the best FCDS conference we can be and then schools will make the decision, along with trustees and administration, they’ll make decisions about the move, if there is going to be one. Right now there is so much happening in the FCS/FBS football world that I think schools right now are just digesting the new regulations that just came out whether it’s the bumped-up initiation fee or transition fee or the scholarship numbers. Those all have a significant financial impact, not just on football, but on some of the other sports as well. It’s difficult to generalize about all of our institutions and particularly when we have a school like West Georgia (DII) planning to join as well.
Is there a world in which you can see the entire conference becoming an FBS conference, or do you think it would just end up being certain schools making their way up?
The answer is that’s hard to say. There are a number of different factors that schools have to consider, particularly given the new legislation, and as I mentioned, they are all on a different timeline. There is strength in numbers, but at the end of the day its sort of hard to predict how the exact timing is going to pan out. And as I’m sure you well know, we’re in this environment where there is constant change going on in terms of conference membership and it’s hard to predict how that will all turn out and if it’s even feasible to do it as a group. That’s really not clear and there’s also a lot of discussion with the NCAA about the timing and number of years for a reclassification or transition process. And much of that has been brought up by JMU’s success. Like wait a minute, you’re telling me this school could win the conference but not be eligible to participate in bowl games? There’s a lot of those types of things that NCAA folks have to deal with and another thing, there’s a new governance structure. There’s now an FCS football oversight group that will be the equivalent of what the FOC (Football Oversight Committee) is for the FBS. There’s probably just as much change happening both at the NCAA in terms of governance and legislation and as well as realignment and conference membership so it’s a lot to try to shoehorn into one group move.
With those new rules to move up – like instead of $5,000 it’s going to cost $5,000,000 – realistically, how much harder does that make it to make the jump? For Division I schools is that nickel and diming or is that pretty significant?
It’s certainly a big jump and I wasn’t a part of any of the discussions that took place and so I’m not quite sure I understand the rationale behind that big jump. But it is significant. $5,000,000 for one of our programs is a lot of money. You know, I’m not sure I quite understand the rationale of the move from $5,000 to $5,000,000. I understand some of the other things like scholarship requirements, etc. But I would say this – it won’t be a hindrance or hurdle to those schools that are very seriuous about making the move up. If you go back in time, I’m sure Liberty or JMU or others, Jacksonville State, Sam Houston, all those that have moved up recently, thewy wouldn’t be deterred by a $5,000,000 fee. Now I’m sure they’d rather invest it in their programs than write a check to the NCAA. I assume the committee that came up with that legislation had good reasons for doing so, I just am not familiar with the reasoning behind it.
As a first-year conference commissioner, what does a typical day look like for you as you try to establish it in the FCS?
Well, I mentioned we’re virtual, so we have plenty of calls between Brian Morgan, who is our communications director based in Nashville and we’ve got a couple folks down in Dallas at the WAC offices where Kyle (Grooms) is the most significant. So lots of conversations, but once you get into the season, there’s not much that you can really change. There’s a good bit of work done early on to get the branding, the logo, scheduling and all that sort of stuff, but once you’re in the season, it’s really a matter of managing certain crises that come up. Thankfully we haven’t had one. And it’s the routines of player of the week type of stuff but really lots of Zoom calls, put it that way. And also the referees – if there’s anything that unites coaches it’s that all the referees are bad. So dealing with bad calls, what happened here, why was this called, that sort of a thing. That gets into the minutia, but every conference has those types of issues.
Is there a motto or shared mission that the conference has made their focus?
I think our focus right now is to be the best FCS conference we can be. There’s a couple of very strong FCS conferences so we have our work cut out for us to get to that level, but that’s really what we talk about and where our aspirations are. Beyond that, we can all dream about certain things but right now it’s to be the best FCS conference we can be.