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Conference Realignment: Why UTEP Deserves to be in the MWC Discussion

The guys at the excellent Mountain West Connection have been talking a lot about conference realignment and expansion lately.  With the Pac 10 looking at expanding to 12 teams, it's very possible that the MWC could lose a team.  The MW-Connection thinks the Pac 10's first target might be Utah.  Accordingly, the MW-Connection has compiled a list of potential MWC replacements.  Their top candidates are Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, Houston, Tulsa, and SMU.  In the comments, UTEP was summarily dismissed from MWC consideration.  So, I wanted to make UTEP's case for MWC consideration.  I think it's a lot stronger than some realize.


The writer, Michael Rueckert, uses a series of factors to assemble a list of likely candidates.  The factors are pretty much standard fare when it comes to this sort of thing.  He considers:  the size of each school's media market, attendance, and recent football success.  He also considers  ESPN's "Prestige Rankings" and Dennis Dodd's "Decade Rankings."  UTEP was undoubtedly dragged down by the somewhat subjective "Prestige" and "Decade" rankings.

There are currently nine teams in the Mountain West.  Once conference realignment hits, which could be tomorrow for all we know, the league will at the very least replace any departed members and will undoubtedly consider expanding to 12- so as to allow itself to host a league championship in football.  If the Pac 10 and Big 10 get to 12 teams, the last thing the MWC would want is for the final weekend of the season to showcase USC vs. Oregon, Ohio State vs. Penn State, Texas vs. Nebraska, Florida vs. LSU, while the MWC's marquee game is TCU vs. Wyoming or any other regular season game.  The MWC wants to be included in the BCS discussion.  A conference title game would help place the league on equal footing with the rest of the college football heavyweights on the seasons final, and most important, weekend. 

So, the MWC could be adding three, or more, teams if the Pac 10 selects Utah or BYU as an expansion candidate.  I'm not by any means saying UTEP should be the #1 candidate, or even the #2.  I'm just saying that to dismiss UTEP instantly is ridiculous.  If the Mountain West does expand, or replaces existing members, I think several factors give UTEP a compelling argument for admission.  .

The Odd Man Out

WAC Commissioner Karl Benson really blew it in 1996.  The WAC was then a 9 team league  (BYU, UNM, Wyoming, SDSU, UTEP, AFA, CSU, Fresno State-1992 add, and Hawaii).  After the SWC disbanded, Benson went expansion crazy and added teams that had no reasonable or geographic rivalry with his established league.  The WAC expanded to 16 teams (adding SMU, Rice, TCU, UNLV, Tulsa, and San Jose State) and stretched from Hawaii to Houston.  It was insane.

Why'd Benson go for Rice, SMU, Tulsa, and other schools that really never had a place in the league?  Easy.  He was chasing the golden media markets.  Benson believed, foolishly, that just because you have a league team in Dallas or Houston, other members would benefit from recruiting those areas and television numbers would instantly skyrocket since people in those markets would obviously want to watch the hometown team play.  Makes sense, I guess. 

The problem, is that Benson was wrong.  People in Houston and Dallas didn't care to see Wyoming or San Jose State when they came to town. They were used to watching A&M and Texas not UTEP and Utah.  What many tend to  forget is that once the Big 12 formed, Houston and Dallas lost any sense of a true connection to local college teams.  Make no mistake, Texas could play at Jerry World tomorrow, against Sam Houston State, and you'd have 90,000 there and good ratings.   The problem is that SMU, Houston, or Rice simply don't cause anybody in those towns to slow down and take notice.  Even when they're good.

After Benson formed his "super-conference"  Almost immediately, old members were upset at the increased travel times, unorthodox scheduling, and loss of traditional rivalries.  Rick Majerus hated it.  Everyone hated it.  Travel was ridiculous.  There were no natural rivalries anywhere.   A league that had lasted over 30 years and that was familiar with itself was suddenly pairing Hawaii and SMU in games that nobody cared about.  The league was bloated and it had to be put down.  When the MWC formed, longtime member UTEP was left behind.

Here's why I think the MWC would be smart to consider UTEP the next time expansion occurs.

1.  Rivalries

 Let's not discount the fact that for 32 years (1967-1999) the Miners were in the WAC with BYU, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado State.  The WAC's storied basketball history was built on a ferocious rivalry between UTEP and BYU during the 1980's and early 1990's.  UTEP is a natural geographic rival for New Mexico.  We're not talking artificial rivalries here.  BYU and UTEP hated each other.  Don't believe me?  Watch this.

The Miners and New Mexico are natural geographic rivals as they share common recruiting grounds.  When an El Pasoan burns UTEP and goes to UNM, he instantly becomes despised.  I remember Lobo All-American Kenny Thomas, a former EP Austin standout, getting booed time and time again when the Lobos played UTEP.  So, do booing and fights make for a compelling argument for conference admission?  Not exactly.  But, it doesn't hurt.  Full stadiums look good on television. I don't see a lot of football fans getting riled up for Nevada vs. San Diego State in San Diego or Reno.  How many fans might go to that one?  16,000?   I don't see the masses in Houston blowing off an Astros game to watch the Coug's take on Wyoming.... in anything.  Which brings me to the second factor....

2.  Attendance & Market Support

Take a look at the following chart comparing attendance figures at UTEP and the candidates identified by the MW-Connection.

Football/Basketball Attendance Figures for 2009 & 5 Year Average (From NCAA)

School Football 2009 Att. 5 Year Avg. Basketball 2009 5 Year Avg.
Boise State 32,782 31,192 4,044 4,263
Fresno State 33,578 37,118 8,969 10,621
Nevada 17,500 17,086 6,953 7,924
Houston 25,242 20,935 3,814 4,326
Tulsa 22,502 23,107 5,783 5,752
SMU 21,348 18,078 2,835 2,806
UTEP 29,010 38,843 8,675 9,125


I included basketball attendance to show a broader point.  Whenever expansion talk happens, Houston and SMU will instantly be mentioned because they are in huge media markets.  What difference does it make if you are in the nation's 5th or 10th largest media market if nobody in those markets cares to see you live or on TV in college athletics two marquee sports?  Houston has over 30,000 students at their campus yet they average under 21,000 fans at football games over 5 years.  SMU get's 2,800 a game in basketball.  There are good high school programs in Dallas that could get more fans than that.  Really.

Over the last five years (I used 5 years because the NCAA site only has team by team attendance through 2004), UTEP has averaged more football fans per game than all of the other teams mentioned.  Fresno State is right there.  Boise packs their stadium, and I'm sure if they added more seats they'd be full too.  The other schools simply have atrocious local support.  Houston had their most successful season in 20 years, and had a home game with Texas Tech on their schedule, yet they still averaged 4,000 less fans a game than UTEP who probably had their most disappointing season under Mike Price in 2009.  SMU has a beautiful campus and has lots of tradition.  But, in a year where they made a bowl game, they averaged under 22k fans a home game.  Doesn't Odessa Permian beat that at Ratliff?

UTEP, even in bad seasons, has incredible city wide support that dwarfs the love Houston, SMU, and Tulsa get in their respective cities.  When Coach Price has UTEP winning, the Miners will easily average over 40,000 per game on the gridiron and sellouts are common (52,000).  In basketball, most El Paso fans still don't know where or what "Marshall" is but there are still over 9,000 at the Don per home game.  Even in years where Houston and SMU made huge strides in football, their local support doesn't come near UTEP's.  Imagine when they have down years. And, they will.

Houston and Dallas are professional sports towns.  And when locals take the time to follow college sports, they follow the Big 12.  That's the honest truth. TCU was a point or two away from the BCS National Championship Game and they had all of one sellout in Ft. Worth this year.  Why so bad?  Even TCU's Cancellor blames their attendance woes on "conference affiliation."  If Dallas doesn't support a MWC team that's as good as TCU, how will they treat SMU?



UTEP's Weak Link:  Football Success

Admittedly, UTEP hasn't done themselves any favors in football.  Mike Price has gone 34-38 over the last six seasons with two bowl appearances (both losses).  Meanwhile, the other teams being tossed around have been very good (for the most part).  The Miners have made 3 bowl appearances overall this decade.  They lost all three.

  • Houston:  Six bowl appearances in the last seven years (1-5 in those games though);  Won some big games last year (Oklahoma State, Texas Tech) and peaked at #12 in the rankings before losing.... to UTEP.  Kevin Sumlin is doing a heck of a job and drew interest from several BCS jobs (notably Tennessee)
  • Nevada:  Five straight bowl appearances (1-4); Can't seem to get past Boise State in the WAC but who can?  Good, consistent program.
  • Fresno State:  Always a tough out.  Pat Hill is one of the best out there and the Bulldogs routinely give BCS foes fits. 
  • Boise:  They are the best non-BCS football program out there.  Period.
  • SMU:  Had a good 2009, but have been generally terrible for most of the last 20 years.  One bowl appearance this decade (a win against Nevada in last year's Hawaii Bowl).  June Jones is delivering after getting a hefty pay day.

UTEP has been a model of inconsistency, whereas teams like Nevada are the opposite.  Nevada isn't crashing the BCS party anytime soon, but they aren't going 2-10 either.  UTEP, on paper, has a very talented 2010 squad.  But, they could easily finish 5-7 and most El Pasoan's wouldn't be surprised.  The difference between El Paso and these other cities is that El Pasoan's will actually be there to see UTEP go 5-7.

On the hardwood, UTEP is probably the best and most consistent program in the bunch.  Nobody else can claim 3 NCAA Tournament Appearances this decade.  But, when it comes to realignment, football is what matters.  There's no disputing that.  Even Coach K's opinion didn't matter when the ACC switched it up and brought in Florida State and Miami.

How I'd Rank the MWC Candidates

Like I said, I don't think UTEP would or should be the MWC's #1 target should they expand in the future.  After looking at all the candidates, I'd probably rank them like this.

1.  Boise State:.    Boise has paved their own way with incredible, consistent success in football.  They would instantly give the MWC a more legitimate standing the auto-bid discussion.  A Boise vs. Utah or TCU title game would be a great draw and would compete with anything the major conferences could produce on the seasons final weekend.

2.  Fresno State:  The Bulldogs are consistently competitive in football and basketball. Unlike Houston and SMU, they draw large crowds seemingly across the board.  Fresno State and UTEP have the most local support in terms of attendance figures.  The Bulldogs and Boise would bring a nice emerging football rivalry over to the MWC.  Fresno expands the MWC presence in California.

3.  Everyone Else:   After Boise and Fresno State, I think the MWC could literally take anyone else in this pool, UTEP included.

UTEP:  UTEP is in the 22nd largest city in the country and they are the only show in town.  The Miners are El Paso's professional sports team.  They don't have to compete with MLB, the NBA, or the NFL the way Houston and SMU do. UTEP's attendance figures blow the others (save Fresno) away.  The Miners have strong, contentious rivalries and deep-rooted history with the core MWC members.  UTEP is also a natural geographical fit, being just a three and a half hour drive away from UNM. UTEP has arguably the best athletic facilities of any of the candidates (including Boise and Fresno).

Houston: I don't buy that the Cougars can bring in the Houston media market.  The college market in H-Town is already owned by Texas and A&M.  The Cougars have porous facilities and little to no local support.  Kevin Sumlin is doing a heck of a job and I'm a big fan of Mack Rhoades.  He'll get that athletic department going in the right direction, but he has a lot of work to do.  Houston might have a better football program than UTEP right now (so does Tulsa and Nevada), but success is cyclical.  If Houston can't draw local support when they are winning, what happens if their program loses a step after Sumlin inevitably leaves to greener pastures?

Tulsa:   Tulsa is 309 miles from Ft. Worth and at least 700 miles away from every other MWC school.  Tulsa, the city, has had some significant downtown redevelopment and recently hosted the C-USA B-Ball Tourney (empty seats are awesome!).  Tulsa doesn't compete with professional sports teams for fans, but they compete with something a lot worse:  Oklahoma and Oklahoma Stone.  Like Houston, Tulsa is in Big 12 Country.   As someone who constantly visits the Tulsa World website to find links for the Dig, I know that it's a rare day where a Sooner and Poke aren't on the front page (the World lists Tulsa third on their banner, too).  Tulsa has a good football program and they didn't miss a beat after Steve Kragthorpe left and Todd Graham came in. Sadly, nobody in that state cares to take notice.

SMU:   A great academic institution, and an emerging threat in football, SMU has a long, storied and controversial history.  I still don't like them for the MWC (for the exact same reasons I had with Houston).

Nevada:  The Wolfpack have a natural rivalry with UNLV and have been consistent in football.  Of all the potential candidates not named Boise, Nevada is in the smallest media market and town.  I also can't get over the fact that they average 17,500 fans per home game over the last 5 years (all bowl seasons).

Potential MWC Candidates Media Market & City Size

(Market according to Nielson)

Media Market City Population & Rank
Boise State 112 #100 (205, 314)
Fresno State 55 #36 (476,050)
Nevada 108 #93 (217,016)
Houston 10 #4 (2,242,193)
Tulsa 61 #46 (385, 635)
SMU 5 #8 (1,279,910)
UTEP 98 #22 (613,190)