HOUSTON, Texas (KTSM) — In what was the worst kept secret in intercollegiate athletics over the course of the last couple months, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) made it official on Thursday: they are expanding.
In a press conference held at NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans, WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd announced Abilene Christian University, Lamar University, Sam Houston State University, and Stephen F. Austin will join the conference effective July 1, 2021. Southern Utah University will become a WAC member in July of 2022.
“This move significantly strengthens the WAC’s brand. It’s already a great brand, but it strengthens it even further and it improves our national basketball profile,” said Hurd. “It strengthens all other men’s and women’s sports in the conference. We will sponsor 20 championship sports — 10 men and 10 women [sports] and all of them will benefit from this. Another thing that’s important is that it’s economically sustainable. One of our plans is to operate in divisions and to cut travel and cut travel expense. That just makes economic sense. It increases our presence in the Southwest and certainly in the state of Texas.”
The WAC will now have the most Texas member schools (6) of any other Division I conference in the country. The league will consist of the ‘Southwest Division’ and a ‘West Division.’ The Southwest will be made up of the six schools in Texas: Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, Tarleton State, and UTRGV. The West will include California Baptist, Dixie State, Grand Canyon, New Mexico State, Seattle U, Southern Utah, and Utah Valley.
Chicago State, a current WAC member, will voluntarily leave the conference in 2022 according to a release sent out by the athletic department on Thursday.
With the newest additions, Hurd also announced the league will bring back football at the FCS level in the fall of 2022. The conference hasn’t sponsored the sport since 2012. WAC football will consist of Abilene Christian, Dixie State, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Southern Utah, Stephen F. Austin, and Tarleton State. Current WAC member, UTRGV, has submitted the appropriate paperwork to launch a Division I program by 2023 or 2024, according Dave Campbell’s Texas Football’s Shehan Jeyarajah.
“[Expansion] brings football back under the WAC umbrella for the first time since the conclusion of the 2012 season,” said Hurd. “That’s a big step for the WAC, that’s a big step for our member institutions and I’m thrilled about it.”
As it pertains to football at New Mexico State — an FBS Independent since 2018 after getting booted from the Sun Belt Conference — the Aggies will not be dropping down to FCS to join the WAC. NMSU has an FBS schedule in 2021 and has signed contracts to play Power 5 programs through the next decade. Those contracts are lucrative for the athletic department and provides all other programs at NMSU the financial resources to play their respective sports.
While the Aggies won’t be dropping down to meet the rest of the WAC in 2022, NMSU Director of Athletics Mario Moccia is hopeful the conference can make the jump to the FBS level within the next few years, which would give the Aggies a much-needed conference affiliation.
“It’s a great first step, albeit at the FCS level,” said Moccia. “Down the road, do they feel like transitioning to FBS is in their best interest? If they do feel that way, that would be very beneficial to New Mexico State, because that might be an opportunity for us to get into an FBS conference, one that we make on our own at the WAC, versus waiting to be invited [to another conference].”
In all other sports, including basketball, the five additions to the WAC gives the league 13 member schools and it’s likely another institution could be added in the near future. Stephen F. Austin is an intriguing name in men’s basketball, with five NCAA Tournament appearances since 2009. The Lumberjacks pulled off upsets over VCU in 2014 and West Virginia in 2016 as a double-digit seed.
Expansion could provide more parity in men’s and women’s basketball, but it remains to be seen if it will help or hurt the league as a whole in terms of the postseason. The WAC is a one-bid league and that bid goes to the last team standing in Las Vegas at the conclusion of the conference tournament in March.
Moccia said the Aggies are excited for the new additions, though, and he thinks the added parity will be good for New Mexico State.
“We would never want to shy away from competition. Competitors want to play against the best that they can play,” said Moccia. “It’s going to get harder and we’ve never considered our NCAA Tournament ticket automatically stamped. It’s going to force us to look at ourselves and say, ‘what can we do to stay on top?'”
Regardless of how it plays out, the WAC continues to make moves providing stability in a time it is needed most. The conference has added eight new members since 2018 and it appears they are not done yet.
“This is the first time that I’ve felt that this is a stable league — multiple teams — everyone is excited. I think that is far and away the biggest takeaway,” said Moccia.