Conference meetings begin today
By Patrick Kinahan
The Salt Lake Tribune
How many, and who. Two simple questions.
The answers could forever change the Mountain West Conference.
Beginning today, the eight-member conference seriously will consider expansion. The university presidents will gather in Carlsbad, Calif., for three days at their annual retreat.
Conference officials routinely discuss expansion possibilities, but this time is different. For various reasons, the presidents could decide to add at least one school.
With an eye toward gaining a slice of the Bowl Championship Series, the Mountain West is likely to expand before the BCS contract expires after the 2005 college football season.
The conference could announce plans to add one school, with the intention of taking up to one year to explore potential candidates. Schools usually need to give a year's notice before leaving a conference.
"You can't just expand overnight," said Craig Thompson, Mountain West commissioner. "There's no reason for us to say we've got to do something at this meeting, if we're going to add people. I really, truthfully don't think there's going to be any change in our membership out of this meeting.
"I will be floored if we take any kind of action at this meeting, other than just discussion."
The Mountain West put a moratorium on expansion until 2004. But recent events could
Last month the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to add three schools, inviting Miami, Syracuse and Boston College -- each of which belong to the Big East Conference.
If all three leave, the Big East could raid Conference USA or other conferences. The Western Athletic Conference also is interested in bumping from 10 to 12 teams.
The Mountain West may want to expand to stay ahead of the curve. Potential candidates include Boise State, Nevada, Hawaii, Fresno State and Texas Christian.
"It doesn't make any sense for us to be in the WAC," Hawaii president Evan Dobelle told the Honolulu Advertiser.
Some Mountain West representatives are pushing to explore expansion.
"It's going to be talked about seriously," said BYU athletic director Val Hale. "The issues will be how many do we add, who do we add, and what are the advantages of adding one, say, as opposed to four. Then, of course, the debate will be who do we add."
At this point, a 12-member, two-division Mountain West seems like overkill. Although the conference could get a television contract for a football championship game, a 12-way payout would not make sense -- or enough dollars and cents.
If the Pac-10 and Big Ten conferences jump to 12 teams, the Mountain West probably would be forced to follow. A nine-member Mountain West is more logical.
"We need to take a systematic look at it and see what's best for the conference," said Chris Hill, Utah's athletic director.
With nine schools, the football teams would play four home and away conference games each season. The extra home game would ease the burden of scheduling another nonconference home game.
The Mountain West also may need to expand to ensure Division I-A status. Incoming legislation requires Division I-A conferences to have eight members.
"It may make sense to have a ninth just to have a buffer," said Thompson.
Wyoming could get legislated out of Division 1-A. In 2004, the NCAA will require programs to average at least 15,000 fans for home football games.
Last season, for five games, the Cowboys averaged 13,686. Only 10,611 attended the Utah game in November.
"We may need to rely on the Wyoming weather to maintain Division I-A status," said Hale.
Adding Texas Christian could doll up the Mountain West in BCS eyes. Without some kind of BCS inclusion, the Mountain West is doomed to be a second-rate conference.
The BCS format makes between $7 million and $10 million for members of its six conferences. The ACC-Big East fallout could help the have-nots.
"I love this in terms of it's creating chaos and creating confusion," Thompson said. "The more obstacles that come into it, the better off the Mountain West is."
To a point.
If the planets align correctly, Utah could come out smelling like a Rose Bowl. Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen has said Utah would be a candidate if his conference adds two.
The Pac-10, which is not looking to expand, may be forced to increase to keep pace with the other superpowers. The Big 12's Colorado tops the Pac-10's wish list, with Utah and BYU as other possibilities.
Hill will not allow himself to dream.
"I can't worry about that right now," he said. "I'm thinking it's a moot point. I don't think the Pac-10 is looking to expand."
Thompson agrees. But he does believe the ACC expansion could lead to other shifts, mirroring the 1990s when Arkansas moved to the Southeastern Conference, the Texas-based Southwest Conference folded and the WAC exploded to 16 teams.
"I don't think that's realistic, that the Pac-10 would add, and I don't think it's a foregone that if they do add it would be BYU and Utah," he said. "I don't see any sense of an expansion mode, at least from the people I've talked to."
Even without the Big East shakeup, the Mountain West could grab a BCS share in three years. Thompson said the Mountain West already is worthy.
Hale believes his conference will get an invitation, in some form.
"If the Mountain West can obtain BCS access then, really, it puts us on par with the big boys, because we have access to every other championship," he said. "If we could have access to the BCS and have at least a portion of that revenue, then we can continue to function as a big-time program."
Mountain West bylaws require a minimum of six university presidents to sign off on expansion. The fact that four schools are in the process of changing presidents could delay any action.
BYU recently switched from Merrill Bateman to Cecil Samuelson. Colorado State, New Mexico and Air Force also will have new presidents.