The dream of UNLV one day ending up in one of the so-called ‘power conferences’ is not dead, but for the time being, school president Neal Smatresk believes his athletic programs have once again found solid ground.
News broke early Monday afternoon that the remaining members of the Mountain West and Conference USA would see their leagues dissolve, then combine to form a new conference that will begin competing in the 2013-14 academic year.
To start, it will be a 15-team league — seven from the MWC, eight from C-USA — for all sports except for football, in which Hawaii as a football-only member will bump the number to 16. The leagues will also continue to explore expansion possibilities.
“This is about stability,” UNLV president Neal Smatresk said. “I think our fans and fan bases have been watching our conferences get drained by what I think is a horrid national movement that’s all about money. We’re taking a stand, doing something bold.
“We think we improve our market value, spread our brand across the country.”
Well, spreading across the country is no longer an issue, as the newly-formed conference, which has yet to be named, will include programs in all five time zones.
To the new conference, C-USA will bring UAB, Rice, Marshall, Southern Miss, UTEP, Tulane, East Carolina and Tulsa. From a basketball standpoint, the impending merger took a major hit last week in terms of appeal when C-USA powerhouse Memphis accepted an invite to join the Big East.
The Mountain West will add UNLV, Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico and Wyoming, along with incoming members Fresno State, Nevada-Reno and Hawaii.
A couple more valuable pieces were poached in the last few months, including San Diego State and Boise State from the MWC as football-only members, and SMU, Central Florida and Houston from C-USA.
Enough was eventually enough.
“I personally felt this was something we needed to do from the very beginning,” Smatresk said. “Things have gone quite slow, but with the recent moves by the Big East, I think we were motivated to accelerate our conversations.
“We’ve done this, it’s a bold move, we have a membership that’s stable right now and we want to build off of that. That stability is highly desirable.”
Now comes all of the details, and for many on the outside, nothing will be judged more than what the new league does in terms of a television package.
The Mountain West’s current deal, which mostly centers around The Mtn., limits involvement from ESPN and its family of networks, which is a sticking point for many fans of the league’s current members. The quest for better exposure and more TV dollars was a major driving force behind the exits of SDSU, Boise State, BYU, Utah and TCU over the last two years.
Due to legal reasons, Smatresk could divulge details as to whether the current TV deals held by the conferences — C-USA’s doesn’t include much ESPN involvement, either — will dissolve as well.
Smatresk said that the leagues will likely first talk to its current television partners before any deals are finalized.
Also among the still lingering issues are leadership within the league, with both current MWC commissioner Craig Thompson and C-USA’s Britton Banowsky in the running for the gig. As for the league’s scheduling structure, all indications are that it will be regionally based, with East and West divisions likely being formed.
The jury is out as to whether this will turn out to be the right decision.
In the eyes of many, if ESPN is brought into the fold in the TV package put together by the new conference, it will be looked at as a great move. If not, some might wish that UNLV had taken a page out of San Diego State’s book by placing its hoops program in the Big West, potentially forming another rising star of a league on the West Coast while giving the football program a chance to be successful elsewhere.
But both Smatresk and athletic director Jim Livengood have remained firm in their desire to keep their two biggest programs in the same league, and that stance likely won’t change in the future.
The big key moving forward in the long-term for their department — the football program, in particular — involves the potential UNLVNow project, which would add an on-campus football stadium, campus housing, shopping and restaurants. All of that would not just enhance the UNLV campus, but also help the university lose the stigma that comes with being looked at as a ‘commuter’ school.
For now, though, Smatresk believes that simply finding solid ground feels good enough.
“This is the right move for us right now,” he said. “And we are committed.”