New Sun Belt commissioner tackles football scheduling

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

From 1990 through 1993, Keith Gill was a running back at Duke.

He didn’t carry the ball much, rushing just three times – twice as a freshman, once as a senior – for 17 yards.

He also returned 12 kickoffs for another 112 yards.

But Gill, whose first day as commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference is Wednesday, did appear in 39 games according to sports-reference.com.

And one of those in particular left an impression that impacts his thoughts today on scheduling philosophy for the SBC, a Group of Five conference.

“I think there’s a role for guarantee games,” he said, “and going to play big SEC games and having fun."

Related:Sun Belt names new commissioner Keith Gill to replace Karl Benson

UL coach Billy Napier talks to his team after its spring game in April.

It was October of 1993, Gill’s senior season, and Duke played then-No. 11 Tennessee on Homecoming Day in front of 96,173 at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

The Blue Devils fell 52-19, one of their many losses in a 3-8 year.

“But going there, having 100,000 people, having a press box that was 100 yards long – all those things that kind of go along with playing in those SEC stadiums and in that environment – I think is great,” Gill said when asked by The Daily Advertiser about his scheduling philosophy. “I think it was a good learning experience.

“But the question is if you play too many of them, how does that impact you in terms of your long-term goals, whether it’s to make sure that you’re up at the highest part of the CFP (College Football Playoff) rankings from those computers, or whether it’s to try to be the highest-ranked conference champion to play in a New Year’s Six Bowl, and if too much of that can impact those opportunities.”


Under preceding commissioner Karl Benson, Sun Belt teams were encouraged to play a so-called ‘money game’ as one of their four non-conference outings each season. At least two games against peer-level conference opponents also were encouraged, and one against a lower-level FCS opponent was considered acceptable.

A majority of Sun Belt teams have followed the model in recent years.

UL, however, has not always been one of them.

In 2017, the Ragin’ Cajuns played two money games and lost them both – one at Texas A&M and one at Ole Miss.

Last year the Cajuns again played two SEC opponents – and again lost twice, once at nationally ranked Mississippi State and once at then-No. 1 Alabama.

Related:Alabama exposes a lot for Napier's Cajuns to cover up

This year, UL is scheduled to play Mississippi State at the SuperDome in New Orleans for its season-opener on Aug. 31.

Its other three non-conference games, following the model, are against FBS independent Liberty and FCS-member Texas Southern of the SWAC, both at Cajun Field, and at Ohio of the MAC.

In 2020, the Cajuns also are scheduled to play at Missouri of the SEC.

UL athletic director Bryan Maggard, who has two years on the job after leaving Missouri, and Billy Napier, who is heading into his second season as coach of the Cajuns, are on the same page regarding the matter.

“I think Dr. Maggard and I have a pretty good relationship in terms of scheduling,” Napier, a former receivers coach at Alabama and offensive coordinator at Clemson and Arizona State, said when asked about the subject by The Advertiser.

“We basically agreed to play one Power 5 opponent each year, and then the right combination of two at some point down the road is okay with me.

“You know, I have no issue with that,” Napier added. “I think if we’re doing our job, and we’re building the type of program we want to have around here, that will be welcome.”

That’s the case even though UL is 0-44 all-time against teams that were a member of the SEC at the time the two programs played, and even though the Cajuns didn’t manage to knock off a Power 5 in any of their seven seasons under former head coach Mark Hudspeth.

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In Napier’s first season in charge at UL the Cajuns went 7-7, including the losses to Alabama and Mississippi State and non-conference wins over FCS-members Grambling and FBS independent New Mexico State.

They won the Sun Belt’s West Division, but lost at Appalachian State in the inaugural SBC championship game and to Tulane at the Cure Bowl in Orlando.

“You know, one Power 5, two Group of Five teams (from) other leagues that are competitive and one local, to some degree, FCS opponent is kind of the structure,” Napier said.

“I’m excited about the format of the Sun Belt – the East and West divisions, the championship (game). I think we’ve got a really good thing going.

“And in just one year,” he added, “I think that championship game format changed not only our season, but also changed the outside perception of our league.”

Keith Gill, Sun Belt Conference commissioner

Educating outsiders to improve perception of the league is high on the new-job priority list for Gill, a former athletic director at American University and Richmond who most recently was executive associate commissioner of the non-football-playing Atlantic 10 Conference.

He’s also worked in athletic departments at Oklahoma and Vanderbilt, and at NCAA headquarters, and he’s served on the organization’s football rules committee.

“The A-10 is generally not considered the best basketball conference in the country, but it’s a good basketball conference,” Gill said. “And I think the Sun Belt, as we think about it now, isn’t the best football conference in the country. It is a good football conference.

“And I think both leagues want to be the best.

“So every day, when we were working at the A-10, we were trying to move the needle in … making sure that people really understood the quality of our league,” he added. “And I think the Sun Belt is the same way. I don’t know that people really understand and appreciate the quality of the Sun Belt.”

More:Change is in the Sun Belt Conference football air


Under Benson, the SBC jumped from two primary bowl tie-ins – in New Orleans and Mobile – to five.

It created its championship game and enhanced its TV/digital presence with ESPN.

Its teams have upset SEC and other Power 5 opponents, made brief Top 25 appearances on occasion and improved its competitiveness with other Group of Five conferences including the MAC and Conference USA.

Gill strives for more of the same, and then some, especially when it comes to success of the conference’s teams compared to its Group of Five peers, which impacts bowl pairings and postseason revenue distribution.

But, with all that in mind, he also, much like Benson did, seems to have reservations about Sun Belt teams playing too money games.

More:Magalei, UL receivers impress in Cajuns spring game

They’re much-needed by programs seeking an easy road to a seven-figure boost for cash-starved athletic department budgets.

And two pays more than one.

But they also – no matter how much fun can be had playing in front of huge crowds, be it the Cajuns at Alabama circa 2018 or and for a certain Duke running back at Tennessee in the 1990s – can negatively impact on-field success rate when an upset is not pulled off.

“I kind of like the way the Sun Belt seems to kind of be trending toward their schedule,” Gill said. “I think balance is always important.”

The SBC, he added, is “in a good spot” when it comes to football and its scheduling practices.

“I think we need to keep monitoring that,” Gill said, “and just make sure we’re making the right choices to put us in the best position to achieve our goals in the football area.”

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