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New commissioner Charles McClelland wants to put his stamp on the SWAC

He’ll focus on more sponsorships and improved academics across all sports

Michael Strahan, Aeneas Williams, Walter Payton. The Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) has produced some of the all-time greats in sports history. And Charles McClelland is now officially on that list.

McClelland became SWAC commissioner last month, making him the sixth in the organization’s 98-year history. Though he’s new to the position, he’s not new to the SWAC.

Before becoming commissioner, he spent a combined 17 years at two different SWAC schools, Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M, his undergraduate alma mater. He was in charge of the athletic program at both institutions and won multiple SWAC championships with both institutions. At the same time, McClelland made it a priority to graduate student-athletes as well as increase the Academic Progress Rate (APR), an NCAA tool used to measure eligibility, retention and the academic progress of student-athletes and hold schools accountable.

It is this combination, the value placed on academic and athletic success of athletes and history with the SWAC, that made McClelland a prime candidate for the commissioner position.

The Undefeated’s Tucker Toole caught up with the Prairie View alum to talk about everything from his family to his new role.

What is your family background with the SWAC?

I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, going to all of the Jackson State games and the Alcorn State games. Literally since I was a child, I’ve been engulfed in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. My father allowed me to be around legendary coaches like Marino Casem and David Whitney, and W.C. Gorden at Jackson State. So I just a have strong background of being a part of the Southwestern Athletic Conference since birth.

My mother and father both attended Alcorn State back in the ’60s, where they met. My sister attended Southern University; I went to Prairie View and my wife is from Grambling [State]. My two boys are attending Texas Southern University. I have ties to six of the 10 institutions in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

When did you know you wanted to work in athletics and higher education?

I was an accounting major and started working in the athletics accounting office after graduation. It provided me an opportunity to start doing some radio with basketball and football. And because I had some SWAC ties, I was able to get on the athletic council at Prairie View and worked my way through various jobs. Charles Hines, PV president who is now deceased, knew some of the things I was doing within athletics. Because Prairie View was so bad at the time, we weren’t winning games, we had minimal scholarships, he asked me if I would take a shot at it. I didn’t accept it at first; however, after calling my father, he said this was a dream opportunity, and it was only then that I accepted it and started working, and ultimately worked my way through Prairie View and Texas Southern and now becoming the commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference. So it was really all by happenstance, being at the right place at the right time because I was not qualified to be a Division I athletic director and I did not have the experience. It was really Charles Hines seeing something in me and giving me that opportunity.

How do you plan on applying your successes from Texas Southern and Prairie View to the conference as a whole?

I plan to institute the same formula: that is, hard work, making the Southwest Athletic Conference be a conference of utmost integrity, going out and just working hard to show and shine the light on all of the wonderful things that our 10 member institutions are all about. We have great history and traditions. We have some of the most stellar athletes that have come out of intercollegiate athletics, when you talk about Jerry Rice, Doug Williams, John Stallworth, Aeneas Williams.

I mean you can go on and on, not just in football, basketball, baseball. You know currently Rickie Weeks has been one of our stars, so being able to highlight all the wonderful athletes that have come through our schools, and then taking that information and highlighting the wonderful academic programs that we have. We want to go out and get scholarships, we want to go out and do the things it’s going to take to build and sustain our conference from a financial standpoint so we can continue to produce quality athletes that do well on and off the field.

What are your short-term and long-term goals for the conference?

My short-term goal is really to start to build on the sponsors and exposure we already have, build upon the history and tradition that our 10 member institutions have, and I want to build upon those to generate revenue to assist in graduating our student-athletes. So from a short-term process we’re really going to be diving into all the day-to-day intricacies of being a commissioner and the day-to-day intricacies of being able to bring those various packages to where they would be extremely beneficial to the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

Long-term, we want to look at some formulas to assist in raising the profile of our sports so we cannot be one of the lower-rated conferences within the NCAA. We want to make sure we get more than one team in the basketball tournament; we’re going to be looking at analytics and data about who our teams play and what areas they play and the RPI sections that they play.

Although the NCAA is getting ready to move away from RPI, whatever the analytic data is to ensure that our schools are playing the teams they’re supposed to be playing, yet getting the revenue they want to generate and raise the overall profile of our conference.

We should get multiple teams to the NCAA tournament and build and strengthen the Celebration Bowl.

We want to bring a lot of the SWAC greats back, embrace them to this conference, let them know how well they have represented the conference, and that we still need them to represent us well.

So there’s a lot of work to be done, but I’m very excited to create opportunities for students to be able to come to our 10 member institutions, get educated, graduate and be productive citizens in this world.

How do you plan to improve graduation rates for SWAC athletes?

Access to resources is the biggest issue all SWAC schools face when it comes to academics, so part of my responsibility is going to be to give those 10 member institutions the tools they need to be successful. Are they on their way towards completing their degree? Does their major match the classes that they’re taking? So if they’re taking this class, does it count to the major? Quite often a student could say, well, I need to repeat this class to get my grade-point average up, but it doesn’t count towards progress or degree completion in the NCAA.

Our schools have always done a great job of graduating student-athletes and students overall. One of the things we have not been very successful in is not having enough compliance and academic individuals in our various departments to do all of the things that it takes to get the paperwork, and all of the things that it takes to calculate APR and GSR [graduation success rate] together. I want to bring an expert that I can send out to the schools to ensure that the schools know what they’re doing, have all of the paperwork together, implement strategies and implement policies that will allow them to be successful.

How can you make the SWAC more competitive?

We have to continue to highlight that when it comes to bringing in student-athletes, it’s going to be very critical that they’re able to have a conference in which they can come in, compete at a high level, be able to be on television, wear the latest apparel and be able to have a quality educational experience. We will work with the 10 member institutions to do that, but we will start getting down to the nuts and bolts of it.

One of the things that we talked about with basketball is analyzing teams that are ranked 1-50, 50-100, all the way up to 350 or so teams, and then say OK and say we’re going to play these game guarantees. I don’t want to get too complicated with the intricacies of it, but overall just saying working with the schools to create a competitive schedule to allow us to raise our overall ranking as a conference, but also allow the schools to generate whatever revenue they need to be able to make and play in those games, and that’s going to be one of the critical things that we’re going to focus on.

Hampton left the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference after being in an HBCU conference for 23 years. What do you see happening with the SWAC?

There will always be conference realignment, and my goal is to ensure that once realignment occurs again, the Southwestern Athletic Conference is in a position from an offensive standpoint, i.e., being able to go out and get somebody versus defensive or reactionary position where people are trying to leave us.

In this ever-changing world of athletics, there are a lot of resources out there, and schools want to be a part of the ever-gaining resource opportunity. So it’s my job to ensure that I go out and I generate resources to be able to share and distribute with the conference member institutions. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the future, but I can tell you that one of my main goals is to make our member institutions get to the point where people are clamoring to come to the Southwestern Athletic Conference, that they want to come to us versus wanting to go somewhere else. That’s tied to television revenue, sponsorship revenue and overall exposure, and the ability for the conference to raise its overall profile to get multiple teams into the NCAA tournament.

Tucker Toole is a 2020 Morehouse College graduate. This Chicago native was sports editor for the “Maroon Tiger” and is a die-hard Chicago sports fan.