Western Athletic Conference football and the state of Utah go together like peanut butter and jelly.

That tradition will continue when the WAC will again sponsor football as part of expansion plans it announced Thursday.

Southern Utah, which has been a part of the Big Sky Conference since 2012, is among five new institutions joining the league and, as commissioner Jeff Hurd explained, ideally they’re hoping for another.

With the addition of the five schools, and the subtraction of Chicago State, which mutually agreed to leave the WAC, there are now 13 members, including seven that will compete in football.

“I think we hit a home run today,” Hurd said as he was exiting a conference call with the media.

The seven football members include Dixie State and Tarleton State, who both moved up to the Division I level last summer, Southern Utah and the other four schools joining the league — Texas schools Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin, which are all moving over from the Southland Conference.

As Hurd explained, all four of the Texas schools will be joining the WAC this upcoming 2021-22 athletic season, as the process to have them exit the Southland was recently expedited.

Southern Utah, meanwhile, will join the league effective July 1, 2022.

“All the analysis that we did, everything that we looked at … we just feel that this is a very good move for us, for the future of Southern Utah — for both the school and the athletic department,” the school’s athletic director, Debbie Corum, told local reporters on a Zoom call Thursday. “We believe we’re joining a very visionary group of people. We’re joining schools that are in growth situations that have a great interest in creating good athletic competitions. We’re very like-minded with them. 

“As I told our coaches yesterday, we don’t have a crystal ball to know what the future brings, but if we didn’t think this was a really great move, we wouldn’t be making it.”

A new-look WAC

The WAC will divide into two divisions for team sports other than football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. One division will include the four Texas additions, as well as Tarleton State and UT Texas Rio Grande Valley. 

The other division will include the three Utah schools in the WAC — Southern Utah, Dixie State and Utah Valley — as well as New Mexico State, Grand Canyon, California Baptist and Seattle.

“As we look for a 14th member, hopefully that would be a geographic fit for the Southwest side. We will have crossover games and a full double round robin in basketball … but we think the divisional thing will work out very well,” Hurd said. 

SUU men’s basketball coach Todd Simon, whose team is off to a 9-1 start to the 2020-21 season and leads the Big Sky with a 4-0 record, likes the potential he sees in joining the WAC.

“The new WAC is certainly filled with very strong basketball programs and we are excited for the opportunity to compete with this group of up-and-coming programs,” he said. “As we continue to grow our program, we relish the chance for newfound exposure within the footprint of the WAC. In addition, building in-state rivalries with Utah Valley and Dixie State will be a lot of fun for our fans.”  

Prior to joining the Big Sky, SUU had also been full-time members of the Summit League (2007-12) and the Mid-Continent Conference (1997-2007).

“Southern Utah University is honored to join the WAC and help lead the resurgence of this great conference,” SUU president Scott L. Wyatt said in a statement. “We join a group of universities that is growing in enrollment and a conference that is poised for the future. Being a member of the WAC also creates new athletic rivalries that our alumni and fans are excited about. This is a win-win opportunity for SUU and we look forward to the future.”

What about football?

The WAC announced it will reinstate football beginning with the 2022 season and compete at the Football Championship Subdivision level. The WAC last sponsored football in 2012 at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Both BYU and Utah were charter members of the conference, and Utah State later joined; the Aggies won the last conference football title in 2012.

“I cannot overstate my level of excitement in making this expansion announcement,” Hurd said in a statement. “The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to significantly strengthen the WAC’s national basketball brand and other championship sport profiles, and to bring football back under the WAC umbrella is one that made sense.”

There are still details to sort out, among them when the WAC could be eligible to earn an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Since Dixie State and Tarleton State are in Division I provisional status through the 2023-24 season, that would currently leave the WAC with five teams eligible for the postseason, one short of the required number. That’s one reason why getting an additional institution to join the league would be beneficial.

“Change is always scary when you are leaving something as good as the Big Sky, but we are excited about the future in the WAC,” SUU football coach Demario Warren said. “We get an opportunity to compete against some great programs, expand our brand footprint and open ourselves up for some closer nonconference FCS games.”