With the collegiate athletics conference landscape possessing about as much stability as the San Andreas Fault in the past year, it was only natural that Rice would eventually feel the tremors that were set off by the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska departing the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Big 10 conferences, respectively. More recently and closer to home, Texas A&M University left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and the University of Houston, Southern Methodist University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Memphis said goodbye to Conference USA in favor of the Big East conference. As a result, on Feb. 12, C-USA and the Mountain West Conference (which has lost Brigham Young University to the ranks of Division I independents, the University of Utah to the Pac-12 conference, Boise State University to the Big East, Texas Christian University to the Big 12, and San Diego State University to the Big East for football and Big West Conference for all other sports) will align in all sports starting in the 2013-2014 school year. The new affiliation has no name as of yet.
Sunday's meeting in Dallas was a quorum of 16 university presidents from the schools that are currently members of either conference. This event was the culmination of talks that had begun in October and had progressed over the months from a football-only alliance to the final product nearly two weeks ago. With the Big East making moves last fall to combat schools departing from its conference, both Britton Banowsky and Craig Thompson, commissioners of C-USA and the MWC, respectively, felt the need to assert their conferences' collective superiority in football to the Big East, whose status as an automatic qualifier to a Bowl Championship Series bowl has come under fire since the departures of Boston College, the University of Miami and Virginia Tech University in 2004 and 2005. University of Nevada at Las Vegas President Neal Smatresk commented on the impending merger.
"We have been frustrated with the lack of stability of [the MWC]," Smatresk said. "Members of both conferences have been siphoned off in this national athletic conference plundering movement. We need to stabilize our conferences and form an entity we think recommits to the high values of student athletic competition. So we … are going to take a high-road approach to how college athletics are run."
The conference would potentially be divided into East and West divisions for football, allowing schools to largely compete against their original conference mates during the regular season. The postseason would consist of two semifinal games and a championship game, with the participating teams determined by the regular-season standings.
Tulane University President Scott Cowen outlined the mission of the fledgling conference.
"They could come from just about anywhere, schools that share the same values and visions we have for this conference." Cowen said. "We will look at the possibility of adding more schools if they fit our criteria and share the same vision. We may add no schools, we may stay at 16, we might go as high as 24."
C-USA will contribute Rice, the University of Texas at El Paso, Tulane University, the University of Tulsa, the University of Southern Mississippi, East Carolina University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Marshall University to the mix. The MWC adds Colorado State University, the University of Wyoming, the University of New Mexico, the United States Air Force Academy, UNLV, Fresno State University, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Hawaii (for football only), bringing the conference to a total of 16 teams.
The gathering eschewed any pretense of innocently forming a super conference to encourage geographic diversity. This behemoth of an athletic conference was formed in order to give the 16 schools more clout when it comes to the selection of teams to play in the highest-profile bowl games. In the event of the possible elimination of the current BCS Championship selection process, Smatresk wants all teams in the C-USA/MWC conference to have just as good a shot as the powerhouse SEC.
"We've been having discussions about the AQ status and the BCS for three years," Smatresk said. "What I think most of us see coming down the road, and of course, you never know, is the possibility of removing the AQ and having a playoff system. I'd be strongly in favor of the playoffs. We're having every discussion you can imagine we can have. If the AQ system persists, certainly we're looking to join that very exclusive club."