Southern Utah and Dixie State found a new football home in the WAC. Here’s how it happened.
The two Utah schools will begin league play in 2022, joining five other football-playing members
(Jordan Allred/The Spectrum & Daily News via AP) | Southern Utah spend a number of years politely rebuffing the advances of the Western Athletic Conference, but things changed when the WAC hatched plans to revive football at the FCS level. The T-Birds signed on with the reconfigured, joining rival Dixie State, beginning in 2022.
The way Scott Wyatt remembers it, the genesis of Southern Utah University’s move to the Western Athletic Conference dates back roughly seven years.
Not long after his appointment as SUU’s president in Jan. 2014, the WAC reached out for what Wyatt calls “casual conversations” in an effort to gauge his interest in moving his athletic programs from the Big Sky. The summation of those early talks was essentially Wyatt politely declining, citing the fact that the WAC did not have football, the Big Sky did, and that was that.
About a year ago, those realignment conversations came back around, but this time, it was a little more serious. Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, and Stephen F. Austin, colloquially dubbed “The Texas Four,” were planning their exit from the Southland Conference. Their collective intention was not only to move to the WAC, but to do so while leading the charge to reinstate WAC football, which was dropped in 2012 after years of attrition from the league.
At that point, Wyatt was at least willing to listen.
“The four Texas schools were looking to join the WAC, they wanted to know if we wanted to be in and join,” Wyatt told The Salt Lake Tribune during a phone interview. “We like them, we’re familiar with all of those schools. I think we toyed with it at the time, but it didn’t go anywhere.”
With the intention of The Texas Four firm and not changing, this topic wasn’t going away. By the time March arrived, there were enough internal discussions among Wyatt and other high-level SUU officials that everyone decided to take a harder look at moving to the WAC.
Athletic director Debbie Corum was now deeply involved, while Ted Leland volunteered his time to the matter as a consultant. Leland was the athletic director at Stanford from 1991-2005. Corum was Leland’s assistant AD from 1994-96.
“Once we heard football was involved, my reaction was that this is something we should talk about,” Corum told The Tribune. “I know Texas football is really good, but I felt aligning ourselves with Texas sports would be very challenging for us. The in-state rivalries were appealing and I know from experience that if you can get into bigger, major media markets, it just changes everything for you.”
New Southern Utah athletic director Debbie Corum. Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University.
Leland helped give SUU officials the macro perspective of the potential move. What would a travel schedule in the WAC look like vs. travel in the Big Sky? Which league would take student-athletes away from class the least? Which option is least expensive and, in turn, allows SUU to shift resources from travel to performance?
Wyatt ballparked that SUU’s athletics-related expenses will go down by between $200,000-300,000 as a member of the WAC, mostly because travel is going to be easier. Difficult, expensive trips to Idaho, Montana and Washington will be replaced by more-palatable excursions to places like Phoenix (Grand Canyon University), Southern California (Cal Baptist) and multiple areas of Texas. Those are of course in addition to bus trips to Dixie State in St. George and Utah Valley in Orem.
One of the major questions Leland posed was the same obvious topic broached by Corum, who served as the associate commissioner of the SEC from 2000-12. Which league would generate the best natural rivalries? The ones that would get the community, alumni and students excited?
“If you were to ask any Big Sky member who its No. 1 rival is, no one would say SUU,” Wyatt said. “Weber State is closer to southern Idaho (where Idaho State is located). NAU is closer to us, but there’s a long canyon in between and it’s a long drive.
“Rivalries with Dixie State and UVU are natural. Those are close, exciting opportunities.”
On Jan. 14, the WAC announced it was adding five new members in all sports
— The Texas Four, plus Southern Utah — to bring it to a total of 13 members. Since the initial announcement last week, membership start dates and when WAC football will begin have been tweaked.
(Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University) President Scott L. Wyatt will welcome students back to campus in Cedar City this fall.
For all intents and purposes, the Southland has expedited the exit of The Texas Four to this year instead of the original plan of 2022. The WAC was fine with that, announcing on Thursday that those four would join on July 1. Plans to begin WAC football are now moving to this fall, but one league spokesman painted that situation to The Tribune as being in the early stages with a lot of details to work out.
Southern Utah’s WAC entry date remains July 1, 2022. WAC football that fall is scheduled to include The Texas Four and the Thunderbirds, plus FCS independents Dixie State and Stephenville, Texas-based Tarleton State. An eighth football member at some point is likely, potentially current WAC member Rio Grande Valley, which has announced early plans to start playing football in 2024.
“From a conference standpoint, Southern Utah is a natural fit, giving us a third Utah institution along with Dixie State and UVU,” WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd told The Tribune. “Having that many Utah schools in our league cannot be undersold or underestimated. Their proximity to our Western schools helps and in terms of brand recognition, the Big Sky is good, but the WAC brand recognition is significant.”
There has been significant chatter since the WAC expansion was announced about an eventual move to the FBS level. Hurd immediately threw cold water on that notion, offering the “crawl before you learn to walk” mantra with the league cautiously moving into FCS competition first.
Wyatt echoed that a move to FBS would be a heavy lift, but he was willing to be optimistic. Wyatt believes that if the WAC football members move in lockstep, with their similar budgets, similar experiences, and similar aspirations, a move to FBS could work, potentially as early as 2027. That timeline comes off as aggressive, because to be fair, the WAC football members will not go into 2022 on equal footing.
On Jan. 11, 2019, Dixie State announced it was moving from Division II to Division I as a member of the WAC, which obviously did not sponsor football at the time. The Trailblazers instead opted to house football as one of only three FCS independents nationwide.
“No, none,” Dixie State athletic director Jason Boothe told The Tribune when asked if he had any inclination that football was coming to the WAC when the school signed on two years ago. “We didn’t make the move to Division I football thinking the sport would wind up in the WAC. We were comfortable being independent for as long as we had to.”
The life of an FCS independent can be rough from a scheduling standpoint, but Dixie State made it happen, cobbling together full 10-game slates in 2021, 2022 and 2023.
With the 2020 FCS season moved to this spring, even that COVID-impacted six-game slate was deftly put together. It includes a home-and-home with Tarleton State, a trip to FBS New Mexico State, which is a WAC member in everything but football, a trip to Big South power Kennesaw State, and a pair of home games against old Division II Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference partners Fort Lewis and New Mexico Highlands.
There is a case to be made that Dixie State, as well as Tarleton State, are the big winners of the WAC opting to restart football.
“In 2022, there will be a WAC championship to play for,” Boothe said. “From a scheduling standpoint, that’s huge because you know you’re guaranteed three or four home games every year without even doing anything. You sometimes struggle to get home games as an independent.”
THE WAC’S NEW FOOTBALL MEMBERS
Beginning in 2022
Sam Houston State
Stephen F. Austin
Note: Current WAC member Texas Rio Grande Valley is planning to join the conference in football by 2023 or 2024.