LOGAN – Utah State University recently completed its first full year of membership in the Mountain West Conference. Some of its sports did well in the transition, others struggled. Six teams finished fifth or higher in final conference standings while eight programs finished sixth or lower.
Not only is Utah State learning what it takes to transition into a new conference, it is also having to keep an eye on some proposed changes to college athletics. The Mountain West Conference Board of Directors met earlier this week to discuss some of the proposed changes and how they might affect MW affiliated schools.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson and ask him to assess USU’s first year in the conference and provide some perspective on changes that might be coming to the NCAA.
Q: The academic athletic season has come to a close for 2013-14, how would you assess the past year for the conference?
Thompson: It’s the first time we’ve ever been a 12 member league. We had a football championship game. Utah State, of course, participated in that. I think the key word for 2013-2014 was reestablishing stability. A lot of these institutions played against each other for a number of years, some even decades previously. All in all a record six bowls. Other similar NCAA participation was down a little bit, particularly men’s basketball in NCAA. But overall I think a stabilizing year and looking forward to perhaps an upward trajectory.
Q: Part of what was different this past year was adding new schools to the conference. How would you evaluate Utah State’s first full year in the Mountain West?
Thompson: Well. They played in the first football championship. I think the Aggies were very competitive throughout all the sports. When Utah State came into the league, the absolute strength of Utah State (in terms of the Mountain West perspective) was the vision of leadership provided by President Stan Albrecht, by Athletic Director Scott Barnes. The coaches certainly performed well. Matt Wells had a phenomenal first year. I’m impressed with their commitment to improving. (They’ve had) facility improvements, several new buildings are up, ribbon cuttings have happened. I think that Utah State is running extremely fast these days.
Q: You recently held a Board of Directors meeting this past week with the school presidents. What were some of the major points that were discussed in those meetings?
Thompson: We had 11 presidents, Hawaii did not participate but they are in the league for football only. We tackled a number of issues and again I think after establishing this first year with 12 members looking towards the future how do we get better? What areas do we need to improve, strength of schedules, and competition and things like that? Now that’s not really a board purview, we don’t ask them to get too far in the weeds on those type of operational issues. But what does the league stand for, who is it, what does it want to be known for?
Student athlete welfare was a huge topic. We had an historic representation by two student-athletes at the board meeting. The first time ever. I think there are very few conferences, if any, that have had student athletes (attend). But I think that will be one of the notions in the new governance model going forward that student-athletes have a voice and a seat at the table. We’re already there. I think that shows tremendous respect of what we think about our competitors, our student athletes, and the respect we show them.
Q: In a press release about the Board of Directors meetings, it stated that the Mountain West Conference agrees that NCAA proposals are “directionally correct.” What do you mean by that?
Thompson: We think they’re on track. We agree with a number of the concepts and ideas. The challenge is that it’s all hypothetical at this point. There’s a lot of rhetoric about what full cost of attendance means, for instance. Is it football players only? Is that 85? Is it 100, including men’s basketball, the two revenue producing sports? Is it all sports? Is it 250-400 student-athletes across campus? What are the details and how you determine if you get a 1/3 scholarship to participate in track, do you get only 1/3 of the full cost of attendance?
The devil is in the details. So that’s what it’s difficult to talk about ‘do you support’ or ‘where do you stand’ because we don’t know the details. Nobody does. They haven’t been written yet. But as we’re laying the ground work, what the board is trying to say is that you are moving in the right direction.
Q: How could these changes affect the MWC and specifically USU?
Thompson: I think institutions may be asked to make tough decisions. There are limited budgets, just as a household budget or the business that you run has a limited budget. So do the athletic departments. Not just in the Mountain West but throughout the country. I have said many times, Washington State doesn’t look at the same issues the same as USC. Vanderbilt may have a different perspective than Alabama. We have that in the Mountain West Conference.
What it is going to come down to is that you have finite dollars, you have a finite limited budget and you may have to make decisions as to how you spend that budget. More on recruiting, more on training tables, more on facilities, or a combination of those three, for example.
Q: With some of these proposed changes, if they go through, are we witnessing the dawn of a new division of college athletics?
Thompson: That seems to capture the headline but if you read through what they’re looking for is flexibility. They are looking for more flexibility and to have more of a decision making voice in their rules. If a particular legislative piece gets voted on by 300-and-some versus 60-some it’s probably got a lesser chance of passing.
They’re just looking for that flexibility to enhance the student-athlete well-being. Which is also our goal. I think there is a little bit of hyperbole in that there is a $6.5 billion, 12 year college football playoff, of which we are a signatory. How can they have their own division without a lawsuit on the college football playoff, as an example?
Q: What is on the horizon for the MWC in 2014-15?
Thompson: This is certainly not a new notion, but we spend a lot of time talking about improvement. That comes in part with scheduling. That notoriety and national acclaim we’re seeking comes with winning games. It’s all part of the same, simple formula. But it’s easier said than done.
It’s difficult to get the types of schedules that some of our people want. We have to get creative with perhaps other conferences. In association with each other maybe we can bring a couple of teams from a particular conference, again I’m speaking hypothetically, into Laramie and Fort Collins for a Thursday-Saturday basketball swing. And then the next year Wyomning and Colorado State go to those institutions that came out to play them. Again just trying to improve our position. It all comes down to winning. It comes down to winning but also who you play.
Q: What is the likelihood of the MWC to be an active participant in the College Football Playoff?
Thompson: I’m hoping. If history repeats itself, in the 15 year history of the Mountain West we were the highest ranked conference of those five. It’s different because the American was not in that group, but we were the highest ranked 13 of 15 years. Our ambition is to maintain that position and have our champion be selected by the 13 member playoff group and playing in a New Year’s Eve bowl game on an annual basis.