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New boss outlines future of Mtn. West

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Craig Thompson finally slowed down and took in the panoramic, press box-window view at Cougar Stadium during BYU's 13-0 victory over San Diego State Thursday night. As he gazed down at the Cougars and Aztecs in action below, he smiled.

The first commissioner of the Mountain West Conference had just dutifully and graciously answered a score of questions from the media regarding television contracts, bowl affiliations and the goals of the nation's newest league.But for a brief moment, he put the issues, the pressures and the mountain of work that lies ahead out of his mind.

And remembered that the game's the thing.

"This is what excites me, college football," said Thompson, a tall, dark-haired, youthful-looking 42-year-old Iowa native, during his first visit to Provo. For the past eight years he has served as commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, which does not sponsor football, although a few of the schools in the league play the sport.

On Saturdays at his home outside New Orleans, La., he watches college football games until he's dizzy, like any other fan. Now, he's detached no more. He's on the front lines - and couldn't be happier.

"I'm thrilled to be back involved in college football," he said. Involved is putting it mildly. Immersed is more like it.

Though he doesn't officially take over the commissioner's post until Jan. 1, 1999, he's already hip-deep in Mountain West business. Thompson spent several days this week in Salt Lake in negotiations with officials from ESPN, Fox and the Blue and White Network.

He also hobnobbed with representatives from the Las Vegas, Liberty and Holiday Bowls during the BYU-SDSU game. "This is a league that will have at least three bowl eligible teams a year. We need to try to find a home for folks," he said.

Watching the Cougars and Aztecs play, Thompson received a taste of the rivalries that will carry over into the Mountain West. "One of the pluses we have is the unity of these schools, the fact they are similar and they have been amongst each other for a long time," he said. "We have coaches, athletic directors and presidents who are skilled and knowledgeable. It's a great combination. Everyone realizes we must work together."

The way he sees it, the task of being the first commissioner of a new conference is like working with a clean slate. Anything is possible. "It's an old product with a new wrapper," he said. "This is an opportunity to basically build it the way we want to build it."

Thompson envisions this old product reaching new heights in terms of respect and success.

"We want national exposure, and you do that by beating top teams and being among the top teams," he said. "Everyone in the conference has made the commitment to play better competition. We'll be able to put a strong product on the fields and on the basketball courts. We know who we are and what we want to become. We have our goals and objectives. Now we need to map out how to get there."

Speaking of geography, Thompson is eager to establish conference headquarters, and he will have a say in the site-selection process. Five cities are vying to become the home of the Mountain West Conference - Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Thompson will tour Colorado Springs and Las Vegas in November. "Depending on how those go, other cities could be included," he said.

And as for the conference's recently chosen name? "I'm comfortable with it," he said. "It's dependent on us to put some substance behind it."