Orem • Utah Valley University basketball coach Dick Hunsaker had a long list of athletes he attempted to recruit but couldn’t get past their front door because of the program’s lack of an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
On Tuesday, that part of Hunsaker’s job to build his basketball program became much easier. UVU is leaving the struggling Great West Conference to accept an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference, effective July 1.
Utah Valley University, which began as a vocational school during World War II, became the first school to jump from junior college to Division I status.
UVU, snubbed by the WAC in 2011, joins the new-look conference with Cal State Bakersfield, Idaho, Seattle, New Mexico State and Denver.
In 2014, UVU will add men’s soccer to its list of 16 intercollegiate sports.
"It’s a big step," said an emotional Hunsaker, who was told by his peers 10 years ago that accepting his position at Utah Valley was a poor decision. "As I stand here today, this is a wonderful decision."
Utah Valley and Cal State Bakersfield become the fifth and sixth additions to the WAC, joining Seattle, Idaho, Denver and New Mexico State in a conference that has changed radically over the past two years.
For now, the new face of the WAC, created in 1962, is basketball. The football programs at Idaho and New Mexico State will play as independents.
In the absence of football, the WAC will begin play in men’s soccer. Utah Valley will field a team in 2014, joining CSU Bakersfield, Seattle and Denver, which already have men’s soccer. Fourteen of the Wolverines’ 15 sports will compete in the WAC. Wrestling will remain with the Western Wrestling Conference.
"Membership growth is an ongoing initiative," WAC Senior Associate Commissioner Connie Hurlbut said. "Despite the wonderful additions we have today ... the landscape seems to change four times a year. It remains an ongoing objective."
The WAC has a two-year grace period to reach seven schools to maintain its automatic bids into NCAA Tournament competition. Hurlbut said the conference is seeking to build a 10- to 12-member league with two regional divisions.
For the moment, however, all was joy at UVU, which made the announcement in front of cheering students, present and former, and program boosters inside the green and white decorated UCCU Center. The loudest ovation came when a curtain was pulled away to reveal the WAC logo at the same time school president Matthew Holland donned a cap with the WAC and UVU logos.
"I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see these two great logos side by side," he said.
It also helped wipe away the sting of being rebuffed by the conference last summer.
"The WAC got itself in a position where it needs more membership right now," UVU athletic director Mike Jacobsen said. "Last summer there were a lot of ups and downs. My wife had me on suicide watch a couple times.
"The past five years has been a long haul. It’s been a lot of work and lot of time."
Even has Hunsaker acknowledged that the WAC was not what it once was in terms of prestige, he believes there is still value in the brand.
"It is a household name, a national name," he said. "Even as membership has changed, it still has been able to maintain a national presence and will maintain the tradition it represents."
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