By ADD SEYMOUR JR.
After this season, the regular season Southwestern Athletic Conference football champions from the East and West divisions won't be meeting in a league championship game.
Tuesday, SWAC officials said the annual Toyota SWAC Championship game, held in Houston since 2013, is being phased out after the 2017 season. It has been held since 1999, starting in Birmingham, Ala.
"With the creation of the Celebration Bowl as a national showcase for HBCU football, the Council of Presidents and Chancellors decided to suspend the championship game format after the 2017 season," said SWAC Commissioner Duer Sharp. "By focusing on the Celebration Bowl, we can continue to grow the [Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl] as an HBCU classic for the teams and fans of both conferences and for HBCU football nationally."
Ten teams play in the SWAC, with Grambling winning the championship game and the Celebration Bowl last season. Their Celebration Bowl opponent last season was North Carolina Central. Eleven of the MEAC's 13 member schools play football. The conference doesn't have a championship game and isn't split in divisions.
While the SWAC champion had been determined by the title game since 1999, after this season, the champion will be determined by who has the best regular season conference record. Conference school administrators, coaches and SWAC officials will work on a new tie-breaker format and scheduling format.
The Celebration Bowl is heading into its third year of hosting the champions of the SWAC and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The game, telecast in mid-December by ESPN, is one of 13 college football bowl games owned and operated by ESPN Events each year.
Often called the HBCU national championship, there is no actual HBCU championship game, especially as the only HBCU teams eligible to play in the Celebration Bowl come from the SWAC and MEAC. That leaves out independents like Tennessee State and Division II HBCU football teams such as Tuskegee and Winston-Salem State. The NCAA doesn't recognize an HBCU champion either.
The move allows the SWAC to get away from the cost of staging a week-long championship event and game day. Attendance for the SWAC title games held in Houston at NRG Stadium hovered around 39-40,000 fans the first three years, dropping to just under 25,000 fans this past season when Grambling defeated Alcorn State. This year's game will be held in the new Mercedes Benz Dome in Atlanta.
Prairie View A&M head football coach Willie Simmons told the Houston Chronicle that the move could also mean the need to move from seven conference games to nine.
"Personally, I think if you play nine, it works itself out," Simmons told the paper. "Everyone plays everyone and the best team eventually comes out on top. If you decrease it to seven, like our current format, then you run into, 'Well, we didn't play this team and this team that won a championship didn't have to play a tougher schedule.' So I think there are some discussions that have to be had moving forward."