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Utah Utes leaving Mountain West Conference to join Pac-10 in 2011

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SALT LAKE CITY — When he sat down with the Deseret News for an interview earlier this month about the future of his school's athletic program, University of Utah president Michael K. Young said the U. had not received an offer from the Pac-10 to join their conference.

However, Young was also quick to say, "If the Pac-10 were to come calling, we'd have to give it serious consideration."

Well, the Pac-10 came calling earlier this week and it didn't take Utah long to seriously consider and then jump on the offer. The Utes will join the University of Colorado, which accepted an invitation a week ago, in the league that is expected to change its name to the Pac-12.

Utah's invitation was finalized on Wednesday and the official announcement will come today at 1 p.m., assuming the university's Board of Trustees formally approves the move in a meeting scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

No one at the U. is talking publicly about the move or what transpired over the past few days, until today's press conference. Every coach and athletic department employee contacted Wednesday said they were instructed not to talk until after today's announcement and Young and athletics director Chris Hill were not returning phone calls.

One university official explained that the negotiations were kept very quiet and involved as few people as possible because moving to the Pac-10 was both extremely desirable and delicate at the same time.

"They wanted to ensure that nothing got in the way," the official said. "The fewer the people involved, the better. People were quiet because they wanted it to work."

During the interview two weeks ago, Young talked about the changing scenarios in college athletics and how "the landscape changes out from under you." That's exactly what happened earlier this week when the University of Texas decided to stay in the Big 12, along with four other schools after they had been rumored to be headed west to turn the Pac-10 into the "Pac-16."

Once that happened, the Pac-10 turned to Plan B, which was to add Utah with Colorado and make a 12-team league that can be split into divisions and create an annual conference championship football game.

So just how did Utah end up with the big boys in the Pac-10, which is known as the "conference of champions" because of the fact that it has more NCAA titles than any other conference in America?

It probably started with the appointment of Larry Scott as the commissioner of the conference last July 1.

Tom Hansen had been the commissioner of the Pac-10 for 26 years and whenever the subject of expansion came up he usually downplayed the idea. There was an attempt to get Texas and perhaps another school in 1996 when the Southwest and Big Eight conferences dissolved, but since then Hansen said the league was not looking to expand.

However, when Scott took over last summer, he hit the ground running and aggressively pursued the idea of conference expansion. He knew that by expanding to at least 12 schools, the league would be eligible for a lucrative conference championship game in football and perhaps an enhanced TV contract.

When Utah's name came up earlier in the year, Scott wouldn't rule it out, but said the conference was looking at different possibilities. Utah had put itself in position for consideration by dramatically improving its football program over the past decade with two BCS bowl victories and two undefeated seasons, and its men's basketball team had played in 32 NCAA basketball tournament games between 1991 and 2009.

The expansion merry-go-round heated up earlier this month with rumors about Nebraska and perhaps other schools leaving for the Big Ten and the idea of four 16-team mega-conferences being created was a possibility.

At the Pac-10 Conference annual meetings on June 4, Scott laid out a host of expansion scenarios to his athletic directors, including adding the six Big 12 schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Colorado — adding just Colorado and Utah, or standing pat with a 10-team league. He was reportedly given the OK by the Pac-10 chancellors and presidents to pursue the two expansion plans.

Late last week, Scott flew to some of the cities in the Big 12 including Austin and Lubbock, Texas. At that point, things were looking bleak for Utah, which welcomed Boise State into the Mountain West Conference on Friday, to have any chance of moving to the Pac-10.

Then Texas A&M began looking to join the Southeastern Conference and Scott looked to Utah and Kansas as replacements in the deal for Texas A&M. However on Sunday, word came that Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was putting together a TV package that would satisfy Texas and keep the remaining 10 Big 12 teams together. When that happened, the Pac-10 asked Utah to join Colorado, which was one of the league's expansion plans all along.

While one U. official said Wednesday the approval of the U. trustees was not a foregone conclusion, it would be extremely surprising if the board turned down the offer to stay in the Mountain West Conference.

Young had said while his school was happy with the MWC, that money is a big consideration in college athletics with costs going up every year.

"The real money is in the TV revenues and has been for a long time," he said.

The MWC has a TV deal worth $1.3 million per year, while the Pac-10 is reportedly working on a new deal that would be in the neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million per school per year.

Even before his school was invited to the Pac-10, Young said stadium expansion would happen at some point. Right now, Utah would be tied with Oregon State for the second smallest stadium in the Pac-10 at 45,000.

"We'll expand the stadium at some point," Young said. "It's structurally designed so that it's possible. We don't want to deny our fans the chance to see these teams play and that produces revenue."

Some faculty members expressed enthusiasm about the implications of the move for the U. as a whole.

"It really validates what we've known here at the U. for a while in terms of the trajectory of the U.," said James Metherall, a human genetics professor and president of the academic senate. "We fit right in with the other Pac-10 schools in terms of scope and mission."

He said the additional recognition from joining a major conference should translate into stronger applicants in both the student body and faculty.

Patrick Tripeny, an architecture professor who sits on the U.'s athletics advisory council, said faculty members can build relationships with Pac-10 schools without losing ties to MWC colleagues and others in the region.

"That's a great group of schools to be associated with," he said.

e-mail: sor@desnews.com