A new college conference is born

In the topsy-turvy, ever-changing world of college athletics, members of the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA announced a bold move this week to merge the two conferences into a new mega-conference in an effort to survive and stop the hemorrhaging of teams to other conferences.

David Peck

The new yet-to-be-named league will start play in the fall of 2013 and will include current Mountain West members Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, New Mexico and UNLV, incoming MWC members Fresno State, Nevada-Reno and Hawaii (for football only) and Conference USA members Alabama-Birmingham, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Mississippi, Texas-El Paso, Tulane and Tulsa.

The 16-team conference will likely have two divisions and a conference football championship game.

The idea is to create greater stability at a time when money lust is causing conferences to blow apart as schools search for the latest and greatest television contract and grasp at national prominence.

Money led the University of Utah and Brigham Young University to abandon longtime regional ties and leave the MWC for the supposedly greener pastures of the PAC 12 in the case of Utah and independent status for BYU in football, leaving other BYU programs in the West Coast Conference, which some disparagingly call a “gym league” because of its tiny arenas.

Texas Christian followed suit, first planning a move to the Big East, then switching to the Big 12.

Nationwide, many other schools have sacrificed their other sports for the cash cow, football. Indeed, both BYU and U of Utah men’s basketball have fallen off the national radar. The WCC is the 11th-best conference in the college basketball Rating Percentage Index (RPI), while the Mountain West is fifth, ahead, also, of the PAC 12 in 10th place.

As BYU and Utah fled the Mountain West, Boise State briefly joined the MWC but quickly abandoned ship for the Big East, a fading conference that bears little resemblance to its former self as members leave skid marks to depart (West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse for sure with perhaps Louisville to follow). TCU was planning to join but quickly veered off. San Diego State is heading to the Big “East” – go figure – and Air Force was wooed by the Big East but decided to maintain regional ties and stay in the MWC.

The core five of the MWC – Wyoming, CSU, Air Force, New Mexico and UNLV – will be joined by Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii in the new conference. With Hawaii only joining for football, UTEP – a former longtime member of the Western Athletic Conference – will likely join the western division of the new conference, renewing more traditional ties. Utah State out of Logan may also be invited to join.

Thus, although the new conference will span five time zones, regional ties will be maintained and strengthened through the formation of western and eastern divisions.

Is this an ideal solution? Certainly not. But the Mountain West had to do something to create stability, and the new league is also expected to land a new television contract, realizing that the weakness of the conference TV network The Mountain was a huge factor in BYU and Utah leaving.

Imagine what would have happened had BYU, Utah and TCU stayed and Boise State joined for good. The Mountain West would have been a powerhouse in football.

But that’s all water under the bridge. Utah and BYU are long gone, and Boise State was only fleetingly in the Mountain West. TCU – the ultimate carpetbagger of college sports — never really fit in and was always itching to leave. As for San Diego State…who really cares?

The new league will match schools with similar athletic budgets, renew and maintain regional ties and reunite schools with longtime rivalries. It will be good to see the UTEP Miners in the UW Arena Auditorium again and the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at War Memorial Stadium.

And maybe, just maybe, THIS league will stay together.

Oh, and what will they call the new conference? Good question. Some have laughingly called it the Leftover Conference. Others have suggested something like America’s Conference, the Continental Athletic Conference or the Coast to Coast Conference.

Time will tell, and it will be a lot of fun.

By David Peck