The Western Athletic Conference has added its first member in over 10 years, inviting Fresno State to join the conference effective July 1992. Fresno State quickly accepted the offer, the WAC office announced Wednesday.
"That puts us at 10 schools which is a lot better than nine," said BYU President Rex E. Lee, a member of the WAC Presidents Council, which voted toextend the invitation to the Bulldogs during meetings this week in Durango, Colo. The Air Force Academy was the last school to join the WAC in 1980.
Fresno State is the flagship school of the Big West Conference, sending its football teams regularly to the California Raisin Bowl as conference champion. Its baseball team competed recently in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
WAC Commissioner Joe Kearney said the move makes a lot of sense.
"In an era when cost containment is on everyone's agenda, it is important that the Western Athletic Conference address economic issues. The addition of a 10th member will provide scheduling options which in the long run will be economically beneficial to all institutions," he said.
When pressed Wednesday night, Kearney said it made geographic sense to split the WAC into two divisions - Hawaii, San Diego State, Fresno State, BYU and Utah in one and Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, UTEP and New Mexico in the other. Some sports might not be divided into divisions and it will be up to school presidents and athletic directors to eventually make that decision, he said. There will be a lot of talk about scheduling at the upcoming summer meetings in Hawaii, Kearney added.
"Fresno State adds some opportunities to have better scheduling opportunities. They bring a broad-based program to the conference," said Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill. Not only do the Bulldogs have strong men's programs but they also have strong women's programs, which make the school an attractive addition, he said.
The Bulldogs will compete in all 21 sports the WAC offers - 11 men's and 10 women's.
Fresno State had expressed interest in the WAC for several years, but Athletic Director Gary Cunninham told the Associated Press, that the school had not been negotiating for membership.
Thus, Cunningham, who was formerly athletic director at the University of Wyoming, said he was "totally surprised" when the invitation came Monday. The school's administration was quick to accept the offer.
In addition to Fresno State, Big West members San Jose State and UNLV had also been mentioned in expansion talks the past year. While Kearney doesn't see more expansion in the immediate future, he did say, "In this crazy business, nothing's precluded."
According to Ric Bucher of Knight-Ridder, San Jose State officials were devastated by the announcement. They were banking that the move to the more prestigious WAC would help them wipe out a $250,000 athletic-budget deficit by allowing them to take in larger gate receipts from football games against bigger-name teams.
Instead, the WAC expansion left SJS without its No. 1 draw in the school's biggest revenue-producing sport. The Spartans drew a record 31,218 to Spartan Stadium for its 42-7 win over Fresno State last season.
The WAC's gain is clearly the Big West's loss. The conference has been struggling in football with members such as Cal State Irvine and the University of California at Santa Barbara not fielding teamsand teams such as Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach averaging less than 5,000 fans per home game.
Big West Commissioner Jim Haney said the announcement caught his office by surprise. While he knew Fresno State had been campaigning to go to a bigger league, the WAC and the Bulldogs moved faster than he anticipated.
But, he said, "We have been talking about expansion ourselves." The conference is considering Reno and Boise of the Big Sky Conference as possible additions, he said.
The announcement also caught Utah State by surprise. The Aggies have made it known they would like to be part of a Big West-WAC expansion scenario. They now will have to wait with the rest of the Big West teams to see what's going to happen.
One thing that is almost certain to happen is the end of the California Raisin Bowl as a matchup between champions of the Big West and Mid-American conferences, as the game is played at Fresno Stadium, which has announced plans to expand its stadium from 30,000 to over 40,000.
"Our game announced a month or two ago that we were going to an open arrangement," Neal Stoner, the bowl's executive director, told United Press International.
"We anticipated this move by Fresno State."