WAC, USU look to save conference

By by Adam Nettina

Published: Friday, September 3, 2010

Updated: Friday, September 3, 2010

Less than two hours after Western Athletic Commissioner Karl Benson held a teleconference to address the future of the WAC, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes spoke to members of the local media Sept. 1, saying that USU was committed to the idea of expanding the WAC while also stressing the importance of keeping USU's athletic options open.

    "We will keep our options open," said Barnes, who spoke in response to the official announcement that BYU will join the West Coast Conference in all sports except football. The Cougars announced on Wednesday that they would go independent in football, effective June 30, 2011.

    Barnes continued, saying, "The best decision we can make for our student athletes is to make sure we evaluate whatever options are available, and currently we will proceed in that way."

    The two press conferences came on the heels of a nearly three week odyssey which has seen the WAC go from an eight team conference with the possibility of adding a ninth program (BYU) in all sports except football, to a six team conference without its two strongest football members (Fresno State and Nevada.) Nevada and Fresno State accepted invitations to join the Mountain West Conference (MWC) two weeks ago, while USU declined an offer to join the MWC while believing BYU would join the WAC. Boise State left the conference for the MWC in early June.

    Currently, Fresno State and Nevada are contractually obligated to play in the WAC through the next two seasons, although both schools have expressed their desire to leave prior to the 2011-2012 school year. According to Barnes, it's essential that the WAC enforce the bylaw which will keep the two schools in the conference, if for no other reason than to stabilize the WAC's delicate existence until replacement schools can be brought in.

    "What is really important to us, the WAC, is that we continue to have Nevada and Fresno in our conference through 2012," said Barnes. "That gives us this year to see what happens on a national landscape."

    The WAC will operate as a nine team conference this season, and ideally will operate as an eight team conference in 2011-2012.

    As for the WAC's next move, Benson said on Wednesday that a committee has been formed to study future membership models, and the process of searching for replacement schools – whether they currently play in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) or Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) – will begin immediately.

    "I'm confident that there are teams that will add value to the WAC in the future," said Benson. "History has shown that teams that have joined the WAC have provided immediate benefits to the league, and have themselves, become better programs in a short time."

    Conference proponents fear a six- team WAC – which will occur if replacement schools cannot be found by 2012 – will be unable to hold together in the long-term, especially amidst rumors that Louisiana Tech could be exploring options with Conference-USA. Barnes is confident that the WAC can fill the open spots, but said that bringing in a current FCS or non-football school would not be his first preference. Instead, Barnes would like to see the committee target FBS schools from other conferences for expansion.

    "I believe right now our focus should be on evaluating the landscape and seeing what options we have or could have in the future with FBS schools," Barnes said. "I hope that our focus is – and I know mine is – on FBS possibilities moving forward."

    Barnes said that USU was committed to the WAC for the time being, but did not rule out any option for USU in the future. He said that talks with the MWC were not a "dead issue," although said that there has "not been any live dialogue lately."

    Likewise, Barnes believes that as long as Nevada and Fresno State remain in the WAC through the 2011-2012 school year, USU won't be too adversely affected in the ability to recruit student athletes and field a full 12-game football schedule.

    "With this year, and what we have to sell and knowing where our programs are, we've got a whole list of things to sell. In the shorter term (recruiting) is not going to be a major issue," Barnes said.

    On scheduling, he said"is not something we have great concern about right now. If it becomes an issue we'll take further steps, particularly in football."

    Barnes scheduling outlook is, however, subject to revision. Noting that future WAC schools would have lower profiles than the three current WAC schools which will leave the WAC within the next two years, Barnes hinted that USU might need to schedule more challenging out-of-conference games. Regardless of how future schedules might look, the USU athletic director was adamant in establishing a six-game home schedule that includes either BYU or Utah each season.

    "We endeavor to play six home games every year," Barnes said. "We endeavor to keep the Utah and/or BYU series going. We may change that, and we may talk about playing both of them as we move forward. Would we pick up another high profile game? It's interesting how things change."

    Barnes understands that the situation regarding USU's athletic future remains fluid. He knows Aggie fans have been through a wild ride this summer, and he understands they have questions. And while he can't offer any concrete solutions for the time being, he continues to urge patience as the school and the conference search for answers amidst an ever-changing college landscape.

    "The next question is ‘now what?' and certainly that question is important," Barnes said. "I continue to answer that question this way: the one thing we can't afford to do is to make decisions that will affect us for the next decade and to make hasty decisions now if we don't have to."

    He continued, saying, "I believe what we saw in conference movement this summer - could be the tip of the iceberg to what we may see this next year. If that is the case we need to be patient, and we can afford to be patient."

-adamnettina@gmail.com

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