It seems like we've been here before. Back in 1999, after a couple years in a conference that included 16 teams and 4 pods, across 3,900 miles and 4 time zones, founding WAC members BYU and Utah decided it was time to break away from the home they had known for 37 years. Citing a compromise of athletic and educational excellence, the two set off to form their new home, which would become known as the Mountain West Conference.
Considering that UTEP had shared the same home with the schools for 32 of those 37 years, and had formed great rivalries throughout the years, it was almost expected that they would be packing their bags as well. That wasn't the case. Utah and BYU grabbed WAC members Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Wyoming, and UNLV and formed their new 8 team league. UTEP remained in the WAC along with Hawaii and Fresno State, and newbies Rice, SMU, San Jose State, TCU, and Tulsa. That was the first time UTEP would be "snubbed", but it wouldn't be the last.
While UTEP and its fans hoped for an invite to the MWC to come, it continued on in the WAC. The conference reloaded with Nevada, La Tech, and Boise St., but had to say goodbye to TCU, who moved on to Conference USA. With Boise St.'s football program quickly on the rise, so was the WAC, kinda. Unfortunately for the conference though, the mass realignment of 2005 was just around the corner.
The wheels were set in motion when the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to take an unhappy University of Miami away from the Big East, along with Boston College and Virginia Tech. The move sparked a stage of realignment that spread like wildfire. Conference USA would turn out to be the big loser in all the chaos, as the Big East snagged Cincinatti, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, and South Flordia, the Atlantic 10 took Charlotte and St. Louis, and TCU (MWC) and Army (Independence) got out while they still could.
The moves put conferences like the WAC, the MAC, and the Sun Belt on alert, and left schools like UTEP wondering what was to come. Of course, like we had been hoping for years, UTEP and its fans waited for a call from its old buddies in the Mountain West. That call never came. What did come, was a call from Conference USA who was looking to replace their departed schools with Marshall and UCF of the MAC, and Rice, Tulsa, SMU, and UTEP of the WAC.
At the time, the move for UTEP seemed great. It was a no brainer. We got to leave the WAC, which we had been itching to do for years, and we headed for much greener pastures, playing in a conference with a more recognized brand, and against competition that was a clear upgrade from what we had in the years before. We settled into our new home, were somewhat comfortable with our situation, and were ready to take on a new chapter in the UTEP athletics story.
As we all know, the calm didn't last long enough. From 2005 to 2010 the conference expansion volcano lay dormant, but it was only a matter of time before the top was blown off. In 2010, the Big 12 saw Colorado and Nebraska bolt, and it only made others restless. After years of watching big brother (Texas) take a bigger piece of the pie at every chance they got, Texas A&M wanted a piece of their own. In 2011, they got what they wanted, a move out of big brother's shadow, and into the SEC, all while sending things into a tailspin for everybody else.
For a brief second, it seemed like Texas' greed, justified or not, was about to cost the Big 12 its life, and completely change college sports forever. That didn't exactly happen, but it did create another rift, and another shift in the college athletics landscape. Texas A&M announced its move, Missouri soon followed, and the Big 12 was back to the Big 8. It was do or die time for the conference, and they certainly answered the call. The Big 12 responded by taking West Virginia and TCU from the Big East, sparking yet another round of conference expansion.
The ACC quickly grabbed Syracuse and Pitt, and also considered taking UCONN and Rutgers. The Big East was on life support. But, the ACC was satisfied, and the Big East was alive, ready to see another day. After all, Conference USA was ripe for the picking, and little did we know, the MWC would be in play also. It took a few months to figure out how things would fall, but as the dust settled, we found out Houston, Memphis, SMU, and UCF would all be heading to the Big East, as would Boise St. and San Diego St.
So, there we were again. As UTEP fans, we had kinda found some comfort in C-USA. It was a competitive league. We got to play against schools in Texas that we either had history with, or had formed rivalries with since joining the conference, and most importantly, it allowed us to cater to a huge population of UTEP alumni who resided in cities like Houston and Dallas. But, this was no longer the conference we joined in 2005, now more than ever, we were out on an island in far west Texas.
Our initial thought? Look to the Mountain West for a life raft. That didn't exactly happen, but the good thing was C-USA and the MWC were already planning to work together to remain relevant in college athletics. A scheduling partnership would be born, no, an association of two football leagues, no, no scratch that, a full blown merger. After meetings between university presidents and conference officials it was announced that the two leagues would join forces in all sports, and would become a coast to coast conference containing between 16-24 schools.
For UTEP, that was as good as we could ask for. It made sense, and our location just screamed for a move west to join our old WAC partners. The wheels were set in motion, an announcement was made, heck it was even reported that employees for the MTN., the MWC's TV network, were informed that the network would be shut down after the conclusion of the 2012 season. Little did we know the politics and financials of such a move wouldn't exactly allow for a merger to take place so quickly.
If the conferences dissolved, they stood to lose millions of dollars in revenues and exit fees. Any revenues still coming to the conferences for post season appearances by defecting members would be forfeited, and any fees for exiting couldn't be collected either. And it wasn't like it was just one school. We're talking 6 schools, with exit fees of AT LEAST a couple million each, and post season revenues of hundreds of thousands more, if not millions. It could have potentially been a loss of maybe $20 million plus...each!
So, scratch the merger. The two conferences would still help each other out with scheduling, and would hope to combine television and other resources in order to maintain their relevancy, but everyone was back on their own. Again, UTEP looked to be saved by its peers out west. It just makes sense, right??
Now, the new look of both Conference USA and the Mountain West is starting to take shape. Conference USA will be adding FIU, La Tech, UNT, UTSA, and potentially Charlotte and Old Dominion. The Mountain West will add Utah State and UTEP. Right? Not so fast. With the WAC possibly seeing its last days, as it has been for years, the MWC opted to take USU and San Jose State. Not UTEP.
Sources reported that the MWC was planning on "standing firm" with 10 members in football, and nine members in basketball in 2013-14, but they also said that there was a "possibility of UTEP switching to the Mountain West". What do we make of that? My guess is that the MWC and C-USA could still potentially create some kind of partnership over the coming years, and once the new members are settled in, UTEP could potentially move west.
So, it doesn't seem like we'll be receiving an invite to the Mountain West. At least not anytime soon. It's not the first time this has happened to us, and it might not be the last. A lot of us here are still holding out hope, expecting to receive the call, while others realize the truth of the matter. The Mountain West Conference has never wanted us, and maybe never will.
In Conference USA, we have a conference that values our membership, that realizes that at some level UTEP is an asset, and not a liability like others seem to think. More than that, we have a conference that made a proactive move to keep itself relevant. Granted, the additions that C-USA has made won't turn us into a power conference, but, we've added some programs that are loaded with potential, and may only need this small boost to take the next step.
The schools allow us to maintain a hold in certain tv markets, enter new ones, and all in all, to remain competitive in both football and basketball. While historically, financially, and geographically a move to MWC seems like a smart play, do we really want that? Still? You make the call.