A significant portion of Utah’s history in collegiate athletics is about to increase with Southern Utah University’s recent announcement that it’s joining the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). On January 14, 2021, SUU President Scott L Wyatt stood in the NFL Houston Texans’ NRG Stadium with the presidents of Stephen F. Austin University, Sam Houston University, Lamar University, and Abilene Christian University to announce their decision to join the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) effective July 1, 2022. These five universities are joining forces to bring football back to the WAC and are on the ground level of the WAC’s rebirth and expansion.
This conference realignment allows SUU to expand its brand from Southern California to Texas, attract greater national media attention, and establish conference rivalries with our two closest peers, Dixie State University and Utah Valley University. UVU joined the WAC in 2013; DSU in 2020.
Every Division I sport currently played at SUU, with the exception of women’s gymnastics, will be a part of the WAC. The Flippin’ Birds will continue to compete in the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference.
“We’ve enjoyed our time in the Big Sky and have had solid success winning seven conference championships over the past nine years,” said SUU President Scott L Wyatt. “Now, in joining the WAC, we will fit a central post in the high growth southwest region of the United States, including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Southern California. These WAC universities are in a growth mindset, like SUU, including academic expansion, enrollment growth, and a rising athletic vision.” WAC universities are located in five of the top 30 media markets in the United States allowing for greater exposure for the overall Southern Utah University brand.
A new WAC
2022 marks a significant year of celebration for both SUU and the WAC. It’ll mark our university’s 125 anniversary, while we’ll also celebrate the WAC’s 60th anniversary. The WAC has a long history of success. During its six decades of existence, WAC universities have won 32 national championships. The conference, however, struggled through conference realignments in the early 2000s. But like the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes, the WAC is now positioned for a grand resurgence.
“I couldn’t be more excited about our membership in the Western Athletic Conference,” said SUU director of athletics Debbie Corum. “Playing in the WAC will provide great competition, a better student-athlete experience due to decreased travel times, and will provide an opportunity to build on the exposure for Southern Utah University within our geographic boundaries. I’m also convinced that in the very near future WAC media exposure will increase to the entire country. In my conversations with the WAC athletic directors, it’s clear the conference has a real vision for growth.”
Corum is also excited about new conference rivalries especially with the two in-state universities—DSU and UVU. “For our alumni and fan base, playing these two universities will be a big winner. My experience in intercollegiate athletics has taught me that the closer universities are to one another, the more intense the rivalry will be.”
The arrival of SUU and the four Texas universities allow the WAC to sponsor football for the first time since 2012. The state of Utah has a rich history of dominating WAC football. In its 50 years of playing football, Utah universities have won 22 WAC championships.
The WAC will compete at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) and teams will be eligible to compete in the NCAA playoffs. With the addition of the new teams, the WAC has agreed to study moving-up from FCS to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) during the first year of SUU’s membership. WAC member New Mexico State currently competes in the FBS level with its football program.
This move allows the Thunderbirds to recruit in the football-rich state of Texas. “This gives us a visibility that has been previously closed to us in our recruiting efforts,” said SUU head football coach Demario Warren. “Football is a passion in Texas and being able to recruit those young men into our program could be a game-changer. Add that to our recruiting efforts in Utah, Arizona, and California and we have a real opportunity to continue to build the Thunderbird football program.”
And one more not-so-minor point—the SUU Thunderbirds will enjoy playing on the warmer, southern fields of Cedar City, St. George, and Texas during the cold fall months of October through December, rather than the much colder, northern pastures in the Big Sky footprint.
SUU will continue to be a fully functioning member of the Big Sky Conference from now until June 30, 2022. That includes participation in all sports and the ability to compete for conference championships and NCAA postseason tournaments.