DENVER – The Western Athletic Conference is the first Division I conference to give up on football since the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1995, but the 50-year-old league added two new members on Tuesday and hasn’t given up on keeping Idaho.
Cal State-Bakersfield and Utah Valley will be members beginning next season, but the WAC could lose Idaho to the Big Sky Conference.
The Vandals, who will play as a football independent starting next season, have been in discussions with the Big Sky about returning to that conference in all other sports. Idaho athletic director Rob Spear told The Spokesman-Review that Tuesday’s announcement “does not impact our evaluation.”
The makeup as it stands now is: Denver, Seattle, New Mexico State and Idaho and the two new schools. A big carrot is the two-year exemption that allows the WAC to have an automatic qualifier for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and other team sports even though the league doesn’t have the requisite seven schools. If Idaho bolts, the WAC would have to scramble to add another institution or lose its automatic NCAA tournament berths.
“I want to emphasize this is the first step of what I would anticipate to be a multi-step process,” interim commissioner Jeff Hurd said Tuesday. “The WAC certainly has more work to do, but we’re pleased today that we’re able to take this step and I think it sends a message that the WAC is here to stay, that we will be here not only in ’13-14 but beyond as we in essence reinvent ourselves.”
Hurd said he will continue looking for other new members as the league makes the transition from an FBS conference to a non-football playing Division I conference in 2013-14.
Hurd said his goal is to return football to the WAC some day, but “our priority right now is to move forward as a non-football conference and try to build it in that direction.”
The WAC’s five other football members – Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Texas State, Utah State and Texas-San Antonio – are leaving the league after this year. San Jose State and Utah State are joining the Mountain West. Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio will join Conference USA, and Texas State will go to the Sun Belt in 2013.
Hurd said he hopes to build the league to at least 10 institutions, “but we had to get to where we are today first before we can go further. Our next objective is to at least get to eight.” He said he’s in almost daily discussions with schools about joining the WAC.
Like Utah Valley, Cal State-Bakersfield, currently an independent with an enrollment of 8,200, is a relative newcomer to the Division I ranks. The Roadrunners will join the WAC in 16 of 18 sports – their wrestling and women’s water polo programs aren’t sports that are sponsored by the WAC.
Utah Valley is a member of the Great West Conference. Fourteen of the Wolverines’ 15 intercollegiate sports – all except wrestling – will compete in the WAC. In 2009, Utah Valley, with an enrollment of 33,000, became the first institution to leap to Division I directly from junior college status.
“It’s a great opportunity for our school,” Utah Valley athletic director Mike Jacobsen said. “We’ve worked long and hard for the past five years to bring this to fruition. The WAC has always been No. 1 on our list. We’ve always wanted to be a part of them.”
Both new schools will be involved in any discussions about further WAC expansion even though their membership isn’t effective until July 1, 2013, Hurd said.
The WAC has been around for half a century but found itself irrelevant in football in the rapidly changing landscape of conference realignment. It has recently lost Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii while adding Denver and Seattle as non-football playing members.
The league was formed in 1962 with six schools – Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming – that jumped ship long ago. Colorado State and Texas-El Paso were also long-time members that left, leaving the league with a hodgepodge of smaller schools.
The high mark of the WAC’s football existence was BYU’s national title in 1984 under coach LaVell Edwards.