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SALT LAKE CITY — The WAC is coming back.
Southern Utah University released a significant update Tuesday in its long-rumored courtship with the Western Athletic Conference, an update that could dramatically change the state of college athletics in Cedar City, as well as the Beehive State.
KSL.com contacted multiple sources at different universities involved in the potential conference shakeup. Here is what is known, what is decided (or undecided), and what is still yet to be determined.
SUU to the WAC … and more
The Thunderbirds have already been invited to join the conference, according to an official statement obtained by KSL.com. School officials have previously said similar invitations would be dependent upon the league bringing back football — and the assumption is that means securing an automatic berth to the FCS Playoffs for its conference champion.
"We received an official invitation from the Western Athletic Conference yesterday," an SUU official told KSL.com. "We have not made a final decision, but are seriously considering it."
The invitation was first reported by the St. George Spectrum & Daily News.
With that in mind, the WAC has approached four schools from the Southland Conference about forming a "Texas-based corner" of the conference alongside current members Tarleton State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley (a non-football school). Those schools are: Sam Houston State, Lamar, Abilene Christian and Stephen F. Austin, as first reported by the Extra Points newsletter and confirmed by multiple sources to KSL.com.
None of the Texas-based schools confirmed contact with the WAC. But Abilene Christian released a vague statement Monday to its local media that did not deny the reports, either.
"The Southland Conference has been an important part of Abilene Christian's athletic legacy, from our role as a founding member in 1963 and our return in 2013 when we transitioned to Division I," the statement read. "Each time, we moved for highly strategic reasons that positioned the university and its student-athletes for optimum success. Evaluating our athletic conference alignment is an ongoing responsibility of our senior leadership team and any decision would be followed by a public announcement."
Even with the new additions, the WAC stands one football-playing member short of securing an automatic qualifier because Dixie State and Tarleton State are probationary, non-postseason-eligible members of the conference. New Mexico State is currently a member of the league in all other sports and an FBS independent in football, but the Aggies have been reluctant to drop down to the FCS due to financial reasons (FCS schools are limited in how many FBS opponents they can play each year in traditional "buy games").
With the Aggies (like many institutions) facing a budget crunch in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be unlikely they pass on the money offered by playing football in the top subdivision — even if it makes geographic sense.
That's where the big target comes in: Weber State.
According to several sources with knowledge of the situation, conference members both current and future have engaged with the Wildcats about joining SUU in the Western Athletic Conference and leaving the Big Sky behind. Nothing has been formalized, and a decision on such a move is not imminent, according to a source.
To be clear, Weber State doesn't need to bolt for a new league — it's won eight football titles in its 57-year history in the Big Sky, including a championship or co-championship in each of the past three seasons. But a move to the WAC could provide other benefits for the Wildcats.
Officials from Weber State were unaware of any direct conversations had by the university with the Western Athletic Conference.
The I-15 conference
A move to the WAC would shift the state of Utah's four "smaller schools" — the ones not named Utah, Utah State or BYU — into the same league for the first time in the four schools' tenure as four-year institutions. With Dixie State and Utah Valley already in the league, and Southern Utah eyeing an invitation, the key lynchpin in the move is Weber State.
The four schools are separated by a total of 331 miles, a 4-hour, 45-minute drive on I-15 that makes travel to half the league easier than anything the Wildcats currently face in the Big Sky short of SUU and Idaho State. Furthermore, the four schools offer two distinct travel partners for basketball and Olympic sports in the WAC: Weber State and UVU, separated by just 69 miles; and SUU and Dixie, just 51 miles apart (a three-hour drive separates UVU and SUU).
Short flights to major intermodal hubs in Los Angeles (Cal Baptist), Phoenix (Grand Canyon) and Seattle (Seattle U.) would also replace difficult travel to such locales as Missoula, Montana (Montana); Bozeman, Montana (Montana State); Greeley, Colorado (Northern Colorado); Moscow, Idaho (Idaho); and Cheney, Washington (Eastern Washington).
Of course, such travel would be balanced by the five schools in Texas, as well as New Mexico State. But that lineup would also allow the WAC to establish a division-based setup to help reduce travel costs, as well.
Chicago State remains the outlier in this new conference, geographically. But the Cougars have long been reported to have struggled with the financial costs of maintaining a Division I operating budget, while also participating in a conference where most of their opponents are one to three time zones away.
The league could expand its candidates along the corridor as far as Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Boise State or UNLV. But the Broncos recently left the WAC and won't be dropping their football program to the FCS, while the Rebels — who are affiliated with the WAC in men's soccer and men's swimming — are unlikely to make such a move without a partner like in-state rival Nevada, among other reasons.
Boise State recently engaged in conversations with the West Coast Conference and Big West about league membership, according to public records obtained by the Idaho Press, citing the league being "not willing to fulfill their contractual obligation" of increased television revenue when the Broncos joined the conference.
Barring a change in course from Boise State, however, Weber State makes the most sense.
The Wildcats also have strong rivalries they've cultivated with members of the Big Sky, including Montana, Montana State and Eastern Washington, and Idaho State is just 130 miles away, or less than a two-hour drive on I-15. That's less than half the distance to SUU (281 miles).
But they also have a strong in-state tradition with Southern Utah in football and most other sports, as well as a budding rivalry with UVU in basketball.
Additionally, the Big Sky headquarters is located in Farmington, while the WAC is based in Colorado.
History of WAC football
This wouldn't be the first time the Western Athletic Conference has sponsored football, and the state of Utah has always boasted a significant presence in the sport within the conference.
The WAC was founded in 1962 as a full conference, including football, with teams like BYU, Utah, Arizona State, Arizona and Wyoming. ASU and Arizona left the conference to join the Pac-8 in 1978, and BYU and Utah led a consortium of schools to break away from the league in 1999 to form the Mountain West.
The league survived for another decade by adding schools like Boise State and Utah State. But when the Mountain West snatched the Broncos, Aggies and others as the Utes were invited to the Pac-10 (and BYU set out as an FBS independent) in 2011, the WAC soon became the first conference to drop football since the Big West in 2000.
The conference survived by absorbing the then-Great West Conference, a group that ranged from UVU and Seattle in the west to New Jersey Institute of Technology in the east, and has since stabilized under commissioner Jeff Hurd — without football — with its nine current members today.
Nearly a decade later, football could be back in the WAC. But it's hardly a guarantee.
"We are always working with our board of directors on identifying ways to improve and solidify the future of the WAC," said league spokesperson Chris Thompson in an email to the Spectrum, declining to comment further.