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A fist-pumping day for Utah State: Aggies officially join Mountain West

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Associated Press file photo Utah State University President Stan Albrecht

By Tony Jones

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 04 2012 09:38AM
Updated Aug 28, 2012 11:32PM

Logan • In the early hours of Friday morning, Utah State University president Stan Albrecht arose from a sleepless night. Then he went into the bathroom, washed his face, looked into a mirror and exuberantly pumped his fist in silent celebration.

Three hours later, before an overflow crowd in USU’s Agricultural Sciences Building, Albrecht announced the news that every Aggies fan in Cache Valley and beyond had been waiting for years — and perhaps decades — to hear: Utah State is joining the Mountain West Conference.

Those words, and those that followed, drew a standing ovation. And for good reason. With this move, Utah State has taken a giant step toward securing its athletic future and enhancing its national profile as a university.

With this move, Utah State appears to have finally ended an odyssey that has taken in five different conferences, as well as two separate stints as an independent, since the old Skyline Conference folded in 1961.

"I felt a huge sense of relief this morning," Albrecht said. "We have worked at this a long time. We’re moving into a situation that is incredibly stable, relative to where we had been. It’s a changing landscape out there, and we’re fortunate to be where we are today."

Utah State will be joined in the Mountain West by San Jose State. After playing one final year in the Western Athletic Conference, the two schools will join the MWC in July 2013.

Friday was a day of celebration on Utah State’s campus. Students left classes still in session to attend the news conference. Administrators and staffers left their desks. All to hear the news that the Aggies will now compete in a league with historical rivals such as Wyoming and Colorado State, basketball powers like New Mexico and UNLV and old WAC foes like Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada.

The Aggies won’t have to pay an exit fee from the Western Athletic Conference, though they are paying an undisclosed fee to join the Mountain West.

MWC commissioner Craig Thompson praised Utah State’s campus, facilities and the football program that coach Gary Andersen has been building for the past three seasons. Because of that, and USU’s fit in the Mountain West’s geographic footprint, the school became a natural candidate, Thompson said.

"They have an athletic and academic prowess and they have a commitment to grow both of them," said Thompson, who wasn’t at Friday’s event in Logan, but addressed supporters and media by phone. "They have a huge fundraising campaign and they have a big commitment to renovate and grow their campus. When I toured the campus recently, I think I saw more construction cranes than anything else. Utah State has dynamic leadership. They have regional rivalries, national regional rivalries, that served as a big issue for membership."

Friday caps what has been one of the more memorable weeks in Utah State athletics. Last Saturday, USU unveiled its new uniforms, right before the Aggies put on a show in their spring football game before one of the biggest spring game crowds in memory.

Unknown to USU fans at the time was that the deal to switch to the Mountain West was all but done, with an agreement in principle that was almost finished. In his excitement that day, USU athletic director Scott Barnes almost let the secret out when he told a gathering of fans that he wanted to change the WAC logo on Merlin Olsen Field to a Mountain West logo.

Though an accidental slip, there was little standing in the way of Utah State’s inclusion by that point. The Salt Lake Tribune reported the deal being done the next day.

"There were a lot of moving parts that went into this," Barnes said. "As the people who made decisions for the Mountain West got to know Utah State more and more, they appreciated us more and more. The turning point was them getting to know us."

There is still much work to do for USU before it joins its new league. Barnes said renovations to the Spectrum, Romney Stadium and the soccer fields will take place this summer.

Utah State’s move to the Mountain West will include every men’s and women’s sport except for women’s gymnastics, which the MWC doesn’t sponsor. The school is working to find a home for that program.

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tonyaggieville

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