SALT LAKE CITY — The WAC is back.
Ten years after the Western Athletic Conference stopped sponsoring football, the league will once again return the sport as its 20th championship competition — with two local programs joining the league by 2022.
WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd made the announcement at NRG Stadium in Houston, where he formally unveiled four Texas schools — Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin — as well as Southern Utah, which will formally join the conference on July 1, 2022.
The four Texas schools are currently members of the Southland Conference, while SUU joins from the Big Sky. Sam Houston State is perhaps the biggest draw with 99 wins in the past decade — the second-most in the Football Championship Subdivision, trailing only perennial power North Dakota State. Additionally, Stephen F. Austin has four national titles in school history, which dates back to 1923 as a teacher's college.
The original plan was for all of the new schools to enter together July 1, 2022. But that changed Tuesday, Hurd said.
That was when the four Texas institutions began to expedite their exit from the Southland Conference in time for the 2021-22 season. The move has not been formally approved, but is largely expected to allow the four schools to join the league this summer.
SUU will play one final season in the Big Sky before joining the league in most sports, July 1, 2022.
The new conference is more economically sustainable, operating in two divisions of Southwest and Western states to help alleviate travel expenses in men's and women's basketball and Olympic sports.
It also increases the WAC's presence in the Southwest, primarily in the state of Texas and in Utah, which ranks among the fastest-growing states in the United States.
"With the four new schools, the WAC has more members in the state of Texas than any other (Division I) conference," Hurd said.
The divisional alignment will help "keep those Olympic sports alive," GCU president Brian Mueller said.
"A big issue in college athletics today is dwindling attendance numbers," Mueller added. "But if you look at the attendance numbers of these institutions, they're very strong.
"Kids want to play in front of crowds … It's the beginning of something very, very significant."
The five newcomers will join Dixie State and Tarleton State, which recently moved up from Division II, toward constituting a seven-team football conference in the FCS of Division I. A sixth addition, which is reported to be UT Rio Grande Valley, is also in discussions about joining the league and will be considered prior to the 2022-23 season so that the conference can award an automatic bid to the FCS Playoffs to its champion.
The Vaqueros have submitted a plan to start up an FCS football program in the next five years, and as quickly as the 2023 season, according to emails obtained by Texas Football.
Dixie State and Tarleton State are considered "re-classifying Division I members" until 2024, at which time the conference will supersede the NCAA-mandated six-school minimum for AQ status. The league can also request a waiver for automatic qualifying status in the interim but must be approved by NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
"I cannot overstate my level of excitement in making this expansion announcement," Hurd said in a statement from the league. "The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to bring football back under the WAC umbrella and, at the same time, significantly strengthen basketball and other conference sports is one that is easy to embrace.
"The end result could not have been accomplished without the collaboration and shared visions of the WAC's board of directors and the presidents of the incoming institutions. It not only stabilizes the conference for the future; it also positions it for significant growth and success."
The news you've all been waiting for! Welcome to the WAC - Abilene Christian University (@ACUsports), Lamar University (@LamarAthletics), Sam Houston State University (@BearkatSports), Southern Utah University (@SUUThunderbirds) and Stephen F. Austin University (@SFA_Athletics). pic.twitter.com/HgEeq81059— The Western Athletic Conference (@WACsports) January 14, 2021
The plan is currently to form an FCS conference, though future plans could include a promotion to the Football Bowl Subdivision level. There is no timetable for such a decision, according to WAC officials.
The five new schools will join with eight current members — including UT Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, California Baptist, Seattle University and Utah Valley — to form a 13-team league that will be divided into two divisions for most Olympic sports, with crossover play in men's and women's basketball and full conference play among the seven schools that sponsor football.
"What an exciting time for the WAC and especially for Dixie State football," said Trailblazer coach Paul Peterson, a former Boston College quarterback and BYU assistant who will lead Dixie into its first season as a Division I FCS independent Feb. 27 against Tarleton State. "These new school additions play an excellent brand of football and have had plenty of championship-level success. We definitely look forward to new rivalries and to renew old ones. The future is bright and we are extremely pleased in the direction of WAC football."
The move puts the Southern Utah rivals in the same conference for the first time in both school's Division I era, though the Thunderbirds have a 27-year head start on the Division I era to their rivals in St. George.
"Change is always scary when you are leaving something as good as the Big Sky, but we are excited about the future in the WAC," SUU football coach Demario Warren said in a statement from the school. "We get an opportunity to compete against some great programs, expand our brand footprint, and open ourselves up for some closer nonconference FCS games."
The two divisions will be split into the Southwest — the five new schools from Texas, UTRGV, plus a seventh school that has yet to be announced — while the West division will comprise New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, Dixie State, Southern Utah, Utah Valley, Cal Baptist and Seattle. Such a move will limit travel in Olympic sports to an average of 320 miles between campuses in Texas and 684 miles in the West, down from an average of 1,134 miles in the current alignment.
SUU will join the conference in all sports except gymnastics, which will continue to compete in the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference. Incidentally, the Flippin' Birds have the school's first WAC title, the 2010 championship won as affiliate members of the league.
"Southern Utah University is honored to join the WAC and help lead the resurgence of this great conference," SUU President Scott Wyatt said. "We join a group of universities that is growing in enrollment and a conference that is poised for the future. Being a member of the WAC also creates new athletic rivalries that our alumni and fans are excited about. This is a win-win opportunity for SUU and we look forward to the future."
The Thunderbirds have been members of the Big Sky since 2012, prior to which they competed in the Summit League (2007-12) and Mid-Continental Conference (1997-2007).
But even those schools that don't sponsor football will see a benefit of the new alignment: in travel, as well as competition. If the expanded conference had competed as one for the past three seasons, the average ranking would've increased for each school by 20 spots in men's basketball, 45 spots in women's basketball, and 24 spots in baseball, conference officials said.
"We couldn't be more excited to have Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, and Southern Utah join the Western Athletic Conference," UVU athletic director Jared Sumsion said. "These five institutions strengthen the WAC, give us a bigger footprint in the Lone Star State, and provide the state of Utah with three schools in a single conference.
"Their academic and athletic reputation will help advance the league's standing within intercollegiate athletics and give the WAC stability for many years to come."
UVU has no plans to add a football program. The Wolverines currently sponsor men's and women's basketball, baseball, softball, cross country, golf, soccer, women's volleyball, wrestling, and track and field, with all but wrestling — which is an affiliate member of the Big 12 — competing in the WAC.
One school will voluntarily exit the league following the 2021-22 season in Chicago State, which has long been a geographic outlier among the primarily western states-focused conference. The Cougars have already opted out of conference play, and the remainder of the 2020-21 season, for several reasons, including COVID-19.
After the 2021-22 season, they'll go their separate ways from the conference.
"Since joining the conference in 2013, Chicago State University has been a proud member of the Western Athletic Conference," Chicago State President Zaldwaynaka Scott said in a statement. "When the WAC added six member-institutions in 2013, including Chicago State, the original concept was to develop a Midwest division with Chicago State and University of Missouri-Kansas City as the anchors for potential Midwest WAC expansion. With UMKC's departure (to the Summit League) in 2020 and the recent WAC expansion in southern and southwestern states, Chicago State's membership is no longer geographically sustainable. Thus, with assistance and support from the conference, Chicago State is voluntarily ending its membership on June 30, 2022.
"Chicago State has enjoyed its time in the WAC and is looking forward to finding new membership."
Formed in 1962, the WAC sponsored football until the 2012 season, when Utah State led an exodus of football-playing institutions from the conference to the Mountain West. The league survived by incorporating what was then the Great West Conference, a non-football league led by UVU, Cal State Bakersfield, Seattle and others. Only two football-playing teams remained: New Mexico State, which currently competes as an FBS independent, and Idaho, which has since moved all sports to the Big Sky.
The WAC eventually expanded several other times, including the additions of Grand Canyon, Cal Baptist and Dixie State from the Division II Pac West Conference. Thursday's announcement is the first time the league has pulled in four schools from a Division I conference, that being the Southland.
In its history, the conference headquartered near Denver, Colorado, has had a strong footprint in the Beehive State, including founding members BYU and Utah. The Cougars were members of the WAC during their 1984 national championship season, for example, and Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer represented the conference when he accepted college football's top award in 1990. The conference boasts seven Pro Football Hall of Famers and 43 first-round NFL draft picks in its 51-year history.
With SUU and Dixie State entering the conference in 2022, every Division I university in Utah except for Weber State will have been members of the conference at some point. The Wildcats, who were approached by several institutions about joining the WAC, are founding members of the Big Sky Conference.