Utah State is headed for Mountain West Conference
By Tony Jones
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Apr 29 2012 04:15PM
Utah State has been on a decades-long quest for conference stability.
The Aggies’ search may finally be over.
Multiple sources have told The Salt Lake Tribune that USU will leave the Western Athletic Conference and join the Mountain West Conference beginning in 2013.
The switch is expected to become official in the next seven to 10 days. San Jose State will join Utah State in making the move from the WAC to the MWC.
Though declining to call it a done deal, USU athletics director Scott Barnes told The Tribune Sunday afternoon that "things have progressed even since yesterday."
Barnes confirmed he is in Phoenix attending WAC meetings. He cautioned that "at this point, we don’t have a formal agreement with the Mountain West." But multiple sources say the move will happen, barring something totally unforeseen.
"This is a great thing for Utah State," a source close to the situation told The Tribune late Saturday. "They are finally getting to a relevant conference, and they deserve it."
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson and Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky toured Utah State’s campus in March.
The two conferences are working together on a partnership. Recent reports indicate that a planned merger of the two leagues probably won’t happen. But a football championship game between the two conferences remains a possibility.
The switch to the Mountain West could be a football-saving move for Utah State.
In addition to losing Utah State and San Jose State, reports indicate that WAC member Louisiana Tech is headed for Conference USA. Coupled with Texas-San Antonio’s recent defection from the WAC to C-USA — the school had not yet played a game in the onetime conference home to Utah, BYU, New Mexico, San Diego State and others — the WAC may soon cease to exist as a football entity.
Once in the Mountain West, the Aggies will renew historic rivalries with schools such as Wyoming and Colorado State, which they competed against in the old Skyline Conference. USU has begun playing those schools again in nonconference football games in recent seasons. They also will renew acquaintances against old WAC foes such as Nevada, Hawaii and Fresno State, which are all moving to the MWC beginning in July.
The Aggies, who bounced from the Skyline Conference to independence, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association (now the Big West), the Sun Belt and independence again before joining the WAC, have been in off-and-on talks with the Mountain West for two years — dating back to when Utah and BYU left the MWC for the Pac-12 and football independence, respectively.
Discussions with the MWC began to heat up again a few months ago, when Mountain West members Boise State and San Diego State jumped to the Big East Conference. Those defections left the MWC with just eight football-playing members.
Anticipating this move, USU has significantly upgraded its facilities in recent years, building a football complex in the south end zone of Romney Stadium. The school is adding a new weight room, and is expected to soon break ground on a new basketball practice facility.
On the field, the Aggies will bring some value to the Mountain West. The once-woeful USU football program has made significant improvement under coach Gary Andersen. The Aggies are expected to contend for the WAC football championship this coming season.
In addition, Utah State men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill has built one of the best mid-major programs in the country. The Spectrum is sold out for many Aggie home games, and the USU student section has garnered a national reputation for their devotion and antics. The Spectrum should immediately become one of the toughest arenas in the MWC for opponents, joining the Pit at New Mexico and UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.
Bringing in USU will also give the Mountain West a piece of the Salt Lake City television market again, something that was lost when Utah and BYU left the conference.
Like Utah when it joined the Pac-12, Utah State will face budget issues when it enters the Mountain West. USU and San Jose State will likely enter the new league at or near the bottom in terms of funding for athletics.
Meanwhile, the WAC’s Board of Directors is expected to meet once the Aggies and Spartans officially give notice of their departure to plan their next course of action.
The WAC will be short of the required membership to qualify as a football conference, and candidates to replace Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech are not immediately apparent. Seattle, Denver and Boise State are set to join the WAC as non-football members in 2013.