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Being independent is generally considered a good thing, but Southern Utah University is losing its athletic independence and SUU officials couldn't be happier.

SUU is one of four charter members of the new multi-sport American West Conference it was announced Thursday. Joining SUU in the league are three teams from California - Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Sacramento."This is a great day for Southern Utah University athletics," said Jack Bishop, SUU's athletic director and football coach.

The American West Conference will compete in football only in 1993. For the 1994-95 school year, the AWC will offer championships in nine sports - football, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's cross country, men's and women's track and field, women's tennis and women's volleyball.

The AWC will compete at the NCAA Division I-AA level in football with a fifth member, U.C. Davis, participating as an associate member of the conference. All other sports will compete at the NCAA Division I level.

The league is looking to expand in the near future. In fact, Warren Baker, the president of the conference, said discussions have taken place with 11 western institutions, including U.C. Irvine, U.C. Davis, U.C. Riverside, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and St. Mary's College.

"We are confident that the initial four charter members will be joined by other like-minded universities in the near future," said SUU President Gerald R. Sherratt. "A number of other universities were represented in the various discussions that have been held over the last few years and we expect a number of them to also affiliate with the AWC in the near future as they complete their own institutional studies. The goal is to have a full conference of eight or more institutions all of whom are committed to the twin standards of academic integrity and cost containment."

While Bishop's SUU football teams have been associated with a league, the Western Football Conference, most of the other Thunderbird teams have been independents.

T-bird men's basketball coach Bill Evans said being part of a conference will help his program immediately in three major ways. First, it will alleviate the the problem of scheduling games in January and February when most prospective opponents are playing their conference games. Evans said the league will also help his team stay motivated throughout the season since a conference title will be on the line, and finally, it will give Thunderbird players a chance to receive individual attention as conference players of the week and on all-conference teams.

"This is a positive step for Southern Utah basketball," Evans said. "It will help give us additional exposure and it gives our team the added incentive of winning a conference championship."

The league's basketball champion won't get an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament for at least 10 years, however. NCAA rules state that a conference needs to have at least six member institutions participate in basketball for eight years in order to qualify for an automatic national tournament berth. League officials said it will likely be two years before six basketball teams are in the league followed by the eight-year wait, hence the 10-year time frame for an automatic berth into the NCAA's field of 64.