FRISCO, Texas -- The Southland Conference and Abilene Christian announced Saturday that the institution will return to the league it helped found nearly a half-century ago. The Abilene, Texas-based university will rejoin the Southland on July 1, 2013, and will also begin the move from NCAA Division II to I at the same time.

ACU was one of five institutions that formed the Southland Conference on March 15, 1963, and its storied athletics program was a part of the league until 1972-73 when it departed for its current home, the Lone Star Conference.

When it returns to the league, Abilene Christian will participate in 16 of the Southland’s 17 sponsored championships, including men’s basketball, baseball, cross country, football, golf, tennis, and indoor and outdoor track & field. On the women’s side, ACU will compete in basketball, cross country, soccer, softball, tennis, indoor and outdoor track & field, and volleyball.

“The Southland Conference Board of Directors enthusiastically welcomes Abilene Christian University as our newest member,” said Dr. Baker Pattillo, Southland Board Chairman and the president at Stephen F. Austin State University. “We are honored to learn of the institution’s acceptance of our offer, we appreciate the approval from the ACU Board of Trustees, and we’ve admired the leadership of President Phil Schubert and the diligent work of Athletic Director Jared Mosley throughout this process. The Southland presidents look forward to a beneficial partnership with ACU and its athletic program.”

“On behalf of our board, faculty, staff, students and fans, we are pleased to have this opportunity to help make the Southland one of the strongest FCS conferences in the nation,” said ACU President Schubert. “We are honored to be partners with some familiar and new friends in the league, and to continue to fulfill our own unique mission alongside them. We are serious about achieving academic and athletics excellence, and we are confident that Division I is the best place to continue our strong commitment to both.”

“The announcement of Abilene Christian’s return to the Southland Conference culminates a thoughtful and deliberate membership process for our league,” added Southland commissioner Tom Burnett. “As with other membership additions, the Board methodically researched those institutions that clearly enhance the Southland. Abilene Christian is an accomplished institution, excelling in academics and athletics, and is well-positioned to succeed in Division I and the Southland Conference. We are thrilled to welcome one of our charter members back to the league and look forward to a great future together.”

Founded in 1906 as Childers Classical Institute (then adopting the name Abilene Christian College in 1912), ACU has grown into one of the largest private universities in the Southwest with an approximate enrollment of 4,600.

Affiliated with the Churches of Christ, Abilene Christian regularly rates among “America’s Best Colleges” as ranked by U.S. News & World Report and Forbes magazines. Last year, Forbes ranked ACU among the top 10 percent of colleges and universities in the nation. U.S. News has ranked the institution as the No. 1 “Up-and-Coming” university in the West region three of the last four years. The Chronicle of Higher Education included Abilene Christian as of only 79 four-year institutions in the nation as a “Great College to Work For” in 2012.

ACU attracts students from 47 states and territories, and 43 nations, and the average ACT score for entering freshmen was 24.7 in Fall 2011. Students choose from 71 baccalaureate majors that include more than 125 areas of study, and there are 25 master’s degree and one doctoral program. More than 97 percent of the 245 full-time faculty members hold terminal degrees, and the student-to-faculty ratio is 15:1.

Abilene Christian has been an acclaimed leader in academic innovation with its application of technological advances in recent years. ACU is the first university to provide all full-time students with an Apple iPhone or iPod touch, integrating technology and learning in and out of the classroom. In 2011, the AT&T Learning Studio began providing a curricular laboratory to support student, faculty and staff experiments with new media tools. Last year, ACU was one of only 10 U.S. colleges and universities to be named an Apple Distinguished Program. 

ACU has an institutional endowment of approximately $300 million, and the institution has made more than $70 million in recent capital improvements in the last five years, $47 million of that in buildings on its 250-acre campus.

Abilene Christian rejoins the Southland as one of the nation’s most-accomplished athletic programs. The Wildcats have won 64 team national championships since 1952, including an astounding 59 in men’s and women track & field. Amongst the entire NCAA membership, ACU’s total of 57 NCAA team championships ranks fourth nationally, only behind UCLA, Stanford and Southern California.

Since joining the Lone Star Conference in 1973, the program has captured 163 team championships in league competition. The Wildcats won three league titles and three NCAA regional championships in 2011-12. Abilene Christian is the only NCAA Division II member to finish in the top 15 of the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, awarded to the top athletics program in each division, in all 17 years the award has existed.

ACU’s football team has played in the last six NCAA Division II national playoffs, and running back Bernard Scott, currently a member of the NFL Cincinnati Bengals, won the 2008 Harlon Hill Trophy as the top national player in the division. Six other former Wildcats are currently on rosters of NFL teams.

“We look forward to wrapping up our 40 years in the Lone Star Conference this season and we are proud of our history in NCAA Division II and the LSC,” Mosley said. “We’ve enjoyed great rivalries with West Texas A&M, Angelo State, Texas A&M-Kingsville, Texas A&M-Commerce and others, and we’ll always have deep respect for those institutions, the competition we shared and the talented student-athletes who will always be a part of that heritage.”

As an original Southland Conference member, ACU proved to be a very competitive program with a total of 17 team championships from 1963-73, and the Wildcats won the 1963-64 and 1965-66 All-Sports Award for overall excellence.

A number of ACU legends still remain prominent in the Southland Conference record books, including football all-America performers Jim Lindsey, a two-time Southland Player of the Year at quarterback, and linebacker Chip Bennett, the 1969 NCAA College Division Player of the Year.

While winning three Southland men’s basketball championships in the mid-1960s, ACU produced a pair of three-time all-Southland players, Ronnie Hearne and John Ray Godfrey, who also earned an invite to the 1968 U.S. Olympic tryouts. Abilene Christian won the first seven Southland cross country championships, and still holds the record with a remarkable 19 points in winning the 1965 league title.

In outdoor track an& d field, ACU also won the first seven Southland meets, winning 66 individual events as it built its nationally prominent program. ACU counts Olympic gold medalists Earl Young and Bobby Morrow, also the 1956 Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year, as accomplished alumni in the sport, as well as world-record pole vaulter Billy Olson and 35 other Olympians.

With a long-time emphasis on academic achievement for its student-athletes, ACU has produced dozens of academic All-Americans as well as 30 NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winners.

ACU’s athletic facilities rank among the nation’s best, including the 4,500-seat Moody Coliseum, home to Wildcat basketball and volleyball, the 4,000-seat Crutcher Scott Field for ACU baseball, the 400-seat Wells Field for softball, historic Elmer Gray Stadium for track & field, and the 10-court outdoor Eager Tennis Center. The Teague Special Events Center features athletic offices, locker rooms and three indoor tennis courts. ACU plays football at Abilene’s 15,000-seat Shotwell Stadium, a shared facility a few minutes from its main campus.

Burnett added that with the Southland set to become a 14-member conference in 2013-14, “the real work begins now, in very short order, as the athletic directors and the conference staff will immediately convene to determine playing schedules, possible divisional alignments and tournament formats for the foreseeable future.”