Utah State emerges as serious candidate to join Mountain West Conference
Conference realignment • Mountain West officials toured Aggies’ campus last month.
Published: April 6, 2012 12:49PM
Updated: August 5, 2012 11:31PM
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Tribune file photo Utah State's Quinn Garner (37) and Bobby Wagner bring down BYU running back JJ Di Luigi (10) in a 2010 game.

Utah State’s days in the Western Athletic Conference may soon be coming to an end.

The Salt Lake Tribune has learned that USU has emerged as a serious candidate to join the Mountain West Conference, which has formed a partnership with Conference USA that is scheduled to take effect this summer.

Utah State has been in on-and-off talks with the MWC for almost two years, but new developments indicate that the Aggies have taken a significant step forward in the process.

“What we do know is that there is heavy interest on both sides,” a source with knowledge of the situation told The Tribune on Wednesday.

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and C-USA commissioner Britton Bankowski visited Utah State’s campus last month as part of a fact-finding tour that also included San Jose State. It’s the strongest indication yet that the two schools are serious, and perhaps leading candidates, to join the MWC — which was once home to both Utah and BYU.

Utah State officials declined comment, and Mountain West officials did not immediately respond to messages. But it is expected that a decision on USU and SJSU’s membership will likely to come in the next 30 to 90 days. Most conference bylaws have a July 1 deadline for schools moving to another league.

During that time frame, the Mountain West and Conference USA also are expected to finalize their partnership.

The two leagues initially announced a full merger, which would allow for them to seek a new, more lucrative television contract. However, reports surfaced recently that the NCAA told the two leagues that a merged conference would result in just one automatic berth to postseason events, meaning that only one team would be guaranteed a berth in the NCAA basketball tournaments annually.

If a merger doesn’t take place and the two conferences instead form an alliance — which would presumably include a football championship game — the Mountain West will have nine members and C-USA eight for the 2013-14 season.

However, Air Force may yet leap to the Big East Conference, which would leave the Mountain West with just seven full-time members, since Hawaii is joining for football only (the Warriors will compete in the Big West in all other sports). That strongly suggests the MWC will add one school and perhaps two, since the NCAA requires conferences have at least eight full-time members.

For Utah State’s part, the Aggies are a more attractive candidate now than even a year ago, thanks to significant upgrades to their athletic facilities, including a new strength and conditioning center, courtesy of a $4.5 million gift from an anonymous donor.

The basketball program is planning to build a practice facility, and its plans to incorporate new scoreboards in the Spectrum are under way. The Jim and Carol Laub complex, which includes the football offices and locker rooms, opened in 2008.

Perhaps most crucially, Utah State has improved on the football field. Last season, the Aggies played in a bowl game for the first time since 1997. This coming season, Utah State is widely expected to be picked to contend for the WAC title, along with Louisiana Tech.

The Aggies have long had one of the better midmajor men’s basketball programs in the country. The Aggies’ potential inclusion in the Mountain West could help ease the loss of San Diego State, which has become a Top 25 men’s basketball power. Later this year, the Aztecs will join the Big East in football and the Big West in all other sports.

tjones@sltrib.comTwitter: @tonyaggieville

MWC members

As of July 1, 2013

Wyoming

Colorado State

Air Force

New Mexico

UNLV

Nevada

Fresno State

Hawaii*

*Football-only member

C-USA members

As of July 1, 2013

East Carolina

Southern Miss

Rice

Marshall

Tulane

Tulsa

UTEP

UAB