LOGAN — On commencement day at Utah State University, the USU athletic department is also graduating. The Aggies are leaving the Western Athletic Conference for greener, potentially more lucrative, and most importantly, more stable pastures in the Mountain West Conference.
The Aggies will play one more season in the WAC before joining the MWC on July 1, 2013. Utah State will not pay an exit fee to leave the conference.
The Aggies have spent just seven years in the WAC, but were facing a critical period. Heading into the 2012 season the WAC was left with just seven football-playing members and little hope for growth in sight.
With USU and San Jose State, which also announced Friday that it is joining the MWC, departing, and with Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio heading to Conference USA and Texas State moving to the Sun Belt, the WAC is a shadow of its former self. Only Idaho and New Mexico State are left as football-playing members. Those two schools will be joined by Boise State, Seattle, Denver and UT-Arlington in other sports, but various reports indicate all the remaining schools are evaluating their options.
Joining a more stable situation is a relief, not just the fans of the school but the USU administration as well.
"Moses wandered in the wilderness for 40 years," USU President Stan Albrecht said while addressing the media Friday morning. "I'm not sure why we had to do it for 50. … I officially declare that our wandering is over."
The Mountain West will provide a better geographical fit for the Aggies and has a better profile in both football and basketball than the WAC. Early reaction from coaches suggest that the move will help recruiting across the board.
"It is a tremendous opportunity for us as a football program to join the Mountain West in 2013," said football coach Gary Andersen. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for the teams in the Mountain West, both those that are remaining from the old alignment as well as the former WAC teams. It is an incredible opportunity for us to compete at a high level."
While the announcement was cause for celebration throughout the school, athletic director Scott Barnes acknowledged that the work is not over.
"I had a kitchen conversation with my wife, Jody, just a couple nights ago as I was trying to get my mind around the next 12 to 24 months," Barnes said. "She said, 'Will you take a breath and enjoy what you have right now?' We need to do that, but the journey really begins right now."
By the time USU joins the MWC, the league will have 10 football-playing members and nine all-sports members. The Aggies and Spartans will join Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming, Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii in football only. Current Mountain West members San Diego State, Boise State and TCU are leaving to the Big East and Big 12, respectively.
For now, the on-again-off-again Mountain West/Conference USA merger is on hold, but Albrecht and Barnes acknowledged that talks are ongoing. For the time being, the Aggies will begin Mountain West play with an eight-game league football schedule in 2013.
MWC in 2013
San Jose State
LEAVING: Boise State, San Diego State, TCU
WAC in 2013
New Mexico State^
^football playing members
LEAVING: Louisiana Tech, UT-San Antonio, Utah State, San Jose State, Texas State
C-USA in 2013
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+Teams that announced joining the league on Friday
LEAVING: Houston, SMU, Memphis, Central Florida