Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Q&A with SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp

SWAC Q&A: First-year commissioner Duer Sharp talks league's future
July 22, 2008

By Nick Deriso
As the Southwestern Athletic Conference holds football media day, we check in with first-year commissioner Duer Sharp. A former interim athletic director at Grambling, Sharp previously served as the SWAC's assistant commissioner and had a previous tenure in the Big Ten Conference. He replaced Robert Vowels in January:

Question: Any surprises so far?

Answer: Coming from the Big Ten to the SWAC, you see that we have a long way to go. You are in here early, and you work late. But we feel like we've made a lot of advances. It took some time, but we're partnered with corporate sponsors now like Russell and State Farm. If we continue to work with member institutions as a team, and the conference office stays ahead of the curve, we can continue to have a voice.

Question: One of the more significant moves during your first months in office involved scrapping the old nine-game mandate for football.

Answer: The schools were saying: 'We need a seven-game conference schedule.' In the past, there was an issue of finding those additional games. There was a need then. Now, the schools are asking for relief. More and more, non-conference programs want to play SWAC schools, and this allows them to schedule more of those type games. We're still fine-tuning for the long term, but I think it's a good thing.

Question: Do you credit the improved play of programs that have more recently struggled — like, say, Prairie View?

Answer: People looked at SWAC football and thought it wasn't where it used to be. I don't think people say that anymore. We have gotten better and better. You can't take any weeks off in the SWAC anymore. We are starting to catch up with other conferences.

Question: The SWAC, meanwhile, continues to struggle for respect in basketball. What's the solution?

Answer: I think the way you have a higher profile is to schedule better non-conference opponents.

Question: By that, you mean more competitive opponents?

Answer: Right now, we are caught with our revenue being based on non-conference schedules. It's tough when you are at Memphis, at Illinois. You're not going to come out of there with a very good record. To me, this is what the SWAC needs to do to compete: Schedule more mid-majors. That will strengthen the conference's RPI. I'm looking for a way to attack this. Everyone should be included in that conversation.

Question: You followed Robert Vowels from the Big Ten in 2004. Did you ever consider succeeding him atop the SWAC so quickly?

Answer: You come into here to assist Robert with his vision, and to help out the member institutions. In the beginning, I came here because Robert gave me a call. He said, 'I need some help with the structure of the conference.' Over the years, we were able to do that.

Queston: The nationally televised MEAC/SWAC Challenge was an early success.

Answer: If you would ask anybody who has been to or played in that game, it's a like a bowl atmosphere — on the field and from all the different ancillary events associated with the day. SWAC football and MEAC football don't get a lot of chances to play in front of 90 million people. It's a chance to showcase what our conference is about to the nation.

Queston: The league's championship football game — held outdoors in Birmingham each December — has traditionally struggled with attendance. Does a domed-stadium initiative there provide some hope for a long-term solution?

Answer: The first thing to look at is this: On game day, look outside. We were fortunate that it was sunny last year; it was warm. That's the difference between getting 43,000 fans and 23,000. When you put the dome in the equation, that takes weather out of the equation. Hopefully, from an attendance standpoint, we can all benefit.

Queston: Over the years, there have been bids from cities like Shreveport and Houston to lure away the SWAC offices. What is the league's future in Alabama?

Answer: We enjoy Birmingham. We have a great relationship with the people and companies here. We're here until 2011; that's our agreement and we are planning on remaining here. I give credit to all of those cities, but it will be hard for any city to come in here and provide a better deal. Until that becomes reality, we will be here.

Queston: Big picture, what are your goals as commissioner of the SWAC?

Answer: I just want to continue to enhance the experience of the SWAC student athlete and the fan. That's our main goal. You want people to leave our member institutions saying: 'I had a great time competing and learning.' We want fans to come to our events and say: 'We had a great time.' I think we've already left our footprint on the SWAC, Robert and I. We've come a million miles. But we've got a million miles to go.