WAC Sparks Conference Alignment Changes

As the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) adds football, jettisons member Chicago State, adds five new members and becomes more geographically focused, Seattle University becomes even more isolated. A return to the West Coast Conference, Seattle’s former home, becomes a greater priority as the Redhawks become more geographically isolated and less aligned with fellow WAC member institutions.

Not surprisingly, struggling Chicago State will exit the WAC effective June 2022. With a tiny athletic budget and broad geography, it was just a matter of time before the Cougars exited the conference.

Last year, the conference added California Baptist and Dixie State (UT). The focus on the southwest US geography continued this January when the WAC announcing five new members located in Texas and Utah (Abilene Christian University, Lamar University, Sam Houston State University, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Southern Utah University).

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.

With the newest additions, the league will bring back football at the FCS level in the fall of 2022. 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. 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.

Considering the cost to operate a football program in today’s athletic environment, it is a surprise that the WAC would take on the additional costs of introducing football at this time. That being said, by becoming more geographically focused, the WAC has likely moved off life support.

So how could this impact DU? It was highly unlikely that DU would ever return to the WAC and now it is more unlikely than ever with the addition of football. The Summit League, West Coast Conference, and BIG EAST are the only viable non-football focused conferences that would ever make geographic (or non-geographic, in the BIG EAST’s case) sense for DU. The best fit outside of current Summit League membership for DU remains the West Coast Conference. The travel distance from Denver to the West Coast is actually about the same distance as travel to Grand Forks or Minneapolis and the cost to travel to California due to flight frequency and competition would actually be cheaper or the same as today’s cost to travel to most Summit League institutions.

Over the short term, look for Seattle University to campaign publicly or privately to gain membership to the WCC. Current WCC members include mostly private Jesuit universities: Gonzaga University, Loyola Marymount, University of the Pacific, Pepperdine, Universit of Portland, St Marys, University of San Diego, University of San Francisco, and BYU.

11 thoughts on “WAC Sparks Conference Alignment Changes”

  1. Without FB, our options are very limited. I’m not sure the best fit for DU is the WCC anymore, especially if BYU or Gonzaga leaves the WCC, which is likely the only way DU would ever be accepted there. The WCC isn’t that interested in Denver now, or DU would be there already, as DU has already offered travel subsidies and still got turned down there.

    DU is certainly a good academic and cultural fit there with fellow privates that are similar to DU, but I don’t think the academics at DU are especially aware of WCC’s academics. While DU has always had a big West Coast presence in terms of students and recruiting, I don’t think fans in Denver are any more interested in seeing Loyola-Marymount or Pepperdine or Santa Clara than they are in South Dakota, Omaha or Oral Roberts. BYU and Gonzaga would draw well here, but not so much the other WCC schools…

    DU is doing okay in the Summit. True, the road trips mostly suck, but DU already has a great hockey rivalry with North Dakota that may translate into other sports now that UND is in the Summit, and has a growing all-sports rivalry with Omaha, although it’s more prominent on the Omaha side.

    My long-term, aspirational hope for DU still the Big East, although DU would need to put $8-10 million yearly into men’s hoops (3X what DU spends now) and get to a top 75 RPI to even be considered – Creighton would be the aspirational model to follow. I don’t know where DU would get that kind of money to spend on hoops. If DU were to start drawing 4-6K constantly on campus, getting to the NCAA Tourney and winning 10K+ spectator games televised against high level invited opponents at the Ball Center downtown, that is the kind of trajectory that could interest the Big East. Certainly, Big East Schools would draw well here for hoops, and it would expand the BE footprint with a new top 20 market. The Big East already respects our M/W lacrosse programs as BE associate members, where DU adds good value. Our other sports (other than hoops) would be competitive there already (M/W soccer, VB, golf, Tennis, Swimming, etc), but the DU hoops programs have a long way to go in terms of performance and budget to merit even being in the conversation, let alone getting an invitation.

  2. I’m not holding my breath for a strong basketball program. There’s so much stacked against them from coaching and player levels to location, recruiting power, opponents, fan support, etc. It feels at the moment like the hill is too big to climb. Maybe we give up on Men’s basketball? Does it really benefit the university to keep trying with basketball? We do fine without football and baseball. I’d love to be good at everything, but sometimes you play to your strengths.

  3. Yes, it does benefit DU to keep trying with hoops. Basketball is critical for any non-football school to get any kind of consideration in all-sports conference realignment scenarios, NCAA tourney credits and national relevance, as DU’s biggest excellence typically exists in niche sports played by less than 100 schools (hockey, lax, skiing, gymnastics, etc.)

    Getting men’s basketball to a Summit League power position should not be a heavy lift at all for a school like DU, and the fact that it has become a heavy lift recently is a stain on all those involved.

    From a budget, school and facilities standpoint, the basic bones are there right now. Colorado may be a subpar recruiting area for hoops, but DU has become relevant in many sports by its ability to draw recruits nationally and globally, if needed. You need just eight solid D-I players to be a factor in the Summit, and DU has about 3-5 of them right now, depending on how you count them. They need 3-5 more quality guys…

  4. Overall, I have to say that I am more positive with the Summit League than I was a year ago. I think UMKC and St. Thomas University are nice additions and glad to see IUPUI and Fort Wayne gone. Also, Augustana would have been a lousy addition. The reality is that every conference requires hoops so we have no choice but to roll the basketball out. Chase may have it right – focus on our strenths and don’t waste focus on basketball. Now, if we want to get into another conference, we better improve men’s basketball because right now Denver is ranked #340th out of #357 basketball programs in the United States – embarassing. I think the decision will be clear to fans what DU has elected to do over the next several years.

    I do see Seattle returning to the WCC – they have no business being in the WAC.

  5. Along with the recent WAC moves, the ASUN also added 3 teams, including 2 from the Ohio Valley Conference. Have seen rumors that the loss of the 2 teams from the OVC could result in Western Illinois leaving the Summit to join the OVC. If that were to happen, Northern Colorado could be on the short list to join the Summit as they would be a logical travel partner for Denver. Would Denver consider the addition of Northern Colorado a plus or a minus?

    1. Good question, Gy. I wouldn’t have said this several years ago but UNC would be better than, say, Augustana, who wants to join the Summit League – especially from a geographical standpoint. Also, Northern Colorado has pounded Denver in hoops so they are quite capable. I would put them on par with Omaha in the Summit League with a similar athletics budget and academic profile. The biggest disconect would be academic but there are very few private schools that align with DU in the Summit League currently. I’d be interested hearing what other Denver fans think, too.

  6. At some point academic alignment (for purpose of prospective students) must be considered. Summit is already bad, no offense but UNC (not the one in Carolina) is not who we want to be associated with as a University. WCC is a strong fit on many fronts including academic reputation.

    We are great at some niche sports for which conference does not matter. Lets leave it at that and not wast money that we don’t have on hoops dreams. I like my chances of poweball better than Swami’s strong hoops big east dream described above.

  7. And one other practical point is football. UNC plays in the Big Sky and have no intention of ceasing football. If they were to leave the Big Sky, the WAC would be their landing spot because they offer football. I cant see them moving to a conference without football like the Summit League. Augustana would be the default addition. Also, most conferences usually require they play all their sports in the same conference.

  8. For the record, I am not a fan of adding UNC to the Summit. UNC is a dilutive school that brings DU down whenever the two are associated. UNC has had recent NCAA violations and a middling-at-best academic profile that doesn’t help the Summit. UNC is also poorly funded and stretched thin with its football program. The Bears should stay in the Big Sky.

    Additionally, 90% of UNC alumni are in the Denver metro area, so games against DU in Denver can be defacto home games.

  9. In 7-8 years, it will be St Thomas who will have an outside chance at Big East inclusion. They’re a great add for the Summit and could develop a nice rivalry with DU. With that said, with any success, they’ll be a risk to be plucked by the MVC with a stretch being the BE. The Summit is a solid mid major. No shame in being a member, all options considered.

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