In the midst of Big East expansion talks, the Western Athletic Conference quietly announced they are getting closer to expanding by five schools starting in 2012-13.
Via teleconference Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said it was the “league’s goal” to extend invitations in the next 30 to 60 days, months earlier than initially planned.
Representatives from the schools met with the conference committee in Dallas on Tuesday for presentations about membership and all passed the “first stage.”
"The (athletic directors who make up the membership committee) were very impressed with all five universities," said Benson.
The Conference had been looking to expand after a summer that saw the Mountain West first poach Boise State, then Fresno State and Nevada. Boise State is due to leave after the 2010-11 season, while Nevada and Fresno State are expected to depart after 2011-12 if the WAC gets its wish (both schools would like to leave after this season).
"Our first goal and highest priority is to ensure that we have a minimum of eight football-playing schools for the 2012 season," Benson continued.
The next step is campus visits and the final decision belongs to the WAC Board of Directors, comprised of member presidents and chancellors.
So who are the aforementioned schools? Let’s take a look and also some others that may garner future consideration.
Location: San Antonio, TX
Founded by then Texas Governor Preston Smith in 1969, the Roadrunners are currently one of the largest Universities in the country without a football program.
However, in September 2007 students garnered the votes to pass a referendum to increase funding for athletics. The Athletics fee doubled from the referendum and allowed for an expansion of the athletics department including a Division I Football program. However, the then destination was the FCS.
Things have since changed with the opportunity in the WAC coming to fruition.
UTSA will begin playing football in 2011 and could possibly be a provisional member before becoming a full member.
Former Miami (FL) head coach Larry Coker is set to take over the program, who was 60-15 in six seasons in south Florida.
Of all the schools in WAC, La-Tech seems to be most appreciative. “We love it because they’re in the Central Time Zone, and we recruit to Texas,” Louisiana Tech athletic director Bruce Van De Velde said. “I think it would be a nice fit for them. We’ll see what happens.”
Location: San Marcos, TX
Stadium: Bobcat Stadium
Capacity: Currently 14,104, Expanding to 27,000
Located about half-way in between San Antonio and Austin, The Bobcats are the fifth-largest school in the state in terms of enrollment and are winners of Division II Football national titles in 1981 and 1982. Texas State became more proactive in their attempt to join the WAC when Boise State left.
Texas State currently plays in the FCS Southland Conference and last won the conference championship in 2008.
Club and Luxury seating have already been added to the stadium, but further expansion is being put on hold until the school’s track can be relocated. Meanwhile they have modernized their scoreboard, video board and grandstands and replaced their football surface with a FieldTurf blend.
While WAC commissioner Karl Benson has said it is “way too premature” to discuss invites, Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett was more forward when discussing Texas State and partner UTSA, “Quite honestly, it’s a ‘when’ not an ‘if.’”
Location: Missoula, MT
Stadium: Washington-Grizzly Stadium
While Montana athletic director Jim O'Day was at the meeting, it was in an informal manner. Montana is still waiting on the results of a study to determine if it's worth it to move from the FCS to the FBS. Still, Montana is very much in consideration and it is likely whether or not Montana wants to make the jump to the FBS. If you listen to Karl Benson though, you might already be convinced. ”We believe all three have the resources to make the move,” Benson said of TX-San Antonio, Texas State, and Montana.
Montana has competed in the Big Sky Conference since the conference was formed in 1963, but was a member of the Pacific Coast Conference, which inevitably became the Pac-10, from 1924 to 1950.
The Grizzlies have been one the most successful football programs in the FCS the past two decades, winning the I-AA national title in 1995 and 2001. They also competed in the championship game in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2009.
No slouch on the hardwood either recently, Montana has been the NCAA Tournament in 2005, 2006, and 2010. In 2006, they upset 5th-seeded Nevada in the first round.
Like Texas State, who is also in the FCS, Montana could join the conference, but would need a two-year transition period before becoming eligible for bowl games (Although, wins against them would count...go figure).
There is still minor speculation about Montana not making the jump, but it appears, if they are willing, the WAC will have them.
University of Denver
Location: Denver, CO
Enrollment: 11,400 (5,434 undergrads, 6,301postgraduates)
University of Seattle
Location: Seattle, WA
Both of these schools are viewed as non-football partners. This would give the conference the format of an 8-team conference for football and 10-team for most other sports, including basketball.
The University of Denver is a current member of the Sun Belt Conference, where it doesn't have a strong alumni base, while Seattle is an independent.
Neither team has ever been invited to the NCAA Tournament, but the Pioneers have made baby steps of improvement the past three years under head coach Joe Scott winning 11, 15, and then 19 games last season, while Seattle is still in its infancy.
Both also had their eyes on the West Coast Conference, but those potential prospects were squelched when BYU became an independent in football and joined the conference for the rest of their sports. WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich made it clear that the conference wasn't looking to expand beyond nine members. The nine-team model is the one that the conference presidents and AD's have favored.
The best situation for both schools is the WAC and making a pitch on their sports programs and geographic footprint.
North Texas? Don't count on it
The school previously discussed joining the WAC in the 2004, but decided to stay in the Sun Belt, in which they've been a member since 2001. It is believed that the travel was the main concern for a program with a small, by comparison to other FBS schools, athletic budget in the $14 Million range.
Still, Karl Benson has spoken highly of North Texas in the past noting their added facilities and stadium project to bring in more revenue. However, North Texas President V. Lane Rawlings has stated he has never been contacted by the WAC.
Even if the WAC were to contact North Texas though, the general feeling is they aren't interested citing apathy towards the other WAC members.
After watching in-state conference rival Montana make the jump (if they do indeed make the leap), it isn't out of question for the Bobcats. The Bobcats have won three national titles in Division I-AA/FCS Football, the last one coming in 1984.
An institution of 19,325 currently enrolled students, the school is consistently ranked at the top of the country's academic rankings. Despite being very selective, there are current plans to expand the campus to 20,000 undergraduates by 2020-2021 by increasing classrooms, laboratories, and professors while, in the process, still maintaining small class sizes.
They already compete in the Pac-10 in wrestling, but generally compete in the Big West. They are first member of the Great West football conference to qualify for the FCS playoffs.
An institution of 24,388 undergrads and 4,853 postgraduates, the Hornets are the only school in the state of California that competes in the Big Sky Conference. They already compete in the WAC in baseball and gymnastics.
Cal Poly's rival, they compete annually for the Golden Horseshoe as well as competing with Sacramento State in the Causeway Classic. With an enrollment of 32,153 in fall of 2009 including 24,655 undergrads potential fan base is not an issue.
In their first full year of Division I status, 11 UC-Davis teams made the post-season. However, they have made cuts to their athletic department recently.