Utah State could become part of new super-sized league
College sports • Merged Mountain West and Conference USA may add more members.
Published: February 14, 2012 11:31PM
Updated: May 24, 2012 11:35PM

Utah State is a candidate for membership in a new super league spawned by the merger of the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.

The two leagues, which span five time zones, announced Monday that they will dissolve and create a new still-to-be-named conference. With a combined membership that includes 16 schools, the new conference said it plans eventually to expand to between 18 and 24 members.

According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Utah State is in a pool of six to eight schools, along with institutions such as Temple, Florida International, San Jose State, and Louisiana Tech, that could be chosen to fill out the new conference’s roster.

“At this point, we are sitting tight,” Utah State athletics director Scott Barnes said Tuesday. “We obviously feel we are a strong candidate should [the new conference] decide to expand. The good news from our perspective is that there is clarity in the sense that expansion is likely.”

UNLV president Neal Smatresk, co-chairman of the new league’s board of directors, wouldn’t go quite that far. He said that bringing additional members into the new league is possible, but declined to name specific candidates. Smatresk did confirm that USU has been a candidate to join the Mountain West. And he said things could move fast in the next few weeks.

“We have no specific plans or commitments yet, because we have a core group of schools and we’re happy with that core,” Smatresk said.

“If we add schools, we want to add schools that will compete, share the same values and are like-minded. Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech, they have all been talked about before. They [were] names under consideration by the Mountain West,” he added.

In other words, more trying times could lie ahead for the Western Athletic Conference.

Already down to just seven football members for the 2012 season, the WAC is facing more pressure than ever in its bid to survive what has been a massive realignment of conferences across the country. Boise State, Fresno State Nevada and Hawaii have all left the WAC in the past two years.

The irony? Utah State appears ready to take its place as a WAC power. With their bowl appearance last season, USU football program is poised for continued growth under coach Gary Andersen, and Stew Morrill’s basketball program has long been a conference heavyweight.

Losing the Aggies — or San Jose State or Louisiana Tech — to the new league could be a potentially fatal blow.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who also appears on way out amid reports that he is taking the Sun Belt Conference commissioner’s job, says the key is for the merged MWC/C-USA to settle on a final membership number. At that point, he said, the WAC can start assessing its needs.

“The smaller the number, the better for the future of the WAC,” Benson said. “The fewer schools they try to add, the better the chances are that the WAC will be negatively impacted.”

UNLV’s Smatresk says a marketing firm is being sought to create a branding campaign for the new conference. The two leagues also must name a commissioner — whether it be the Mountain West’s Craig Thompson, Conference USA’s Britton Banowsky or somebody from the outside.

But Smatresk says he is excited about the merger, the stability it brings in an instable college athletics world, and the potential for conference teams to possibly play for a national title — especially if the BCS gives way to a new postseason format for college football.

tjones@sltrib.com

MWC/C-USA merger

Eastern members

Tulane

Texas-El Paso

Alabama-Birmingham

Rice

East Carolina

Southern Mississippi

Tulane

Marshall

Western members

Fresno State

Nevada

Air Force

New Mexico

Colorado State

Air Force

Wyoming

UNLV

Hawaii (football only)

Expansion candidates

Temple

Utah State

San Jose State

Louisiana Tech

Florida International