LOGAN — On a clear blue day, in the deep blue bosom of Utah State University, Scott Barnes was thinking of an entirely different color: gold. A bright golden future, which he hopes will include sharing of the wealth with other universities.
Aggie athletics are making yet another conference move, and that's good news in Cache County. With the Western Athletic Conference in its dying throes, the fear was that Merlin Olsen's Aggies might become a thing of the past — or at least a thing of the Football Championship Subdivision. Olsen, whose name is now on the field at Romney Stadium, would have hated that.
Turns out the late NFL hall of famer might yet be smiling.
In a time of sports upheaval, the ol' agricultural college seems to have found a place to land.
If things go as hoped, there won't be any more desperate searches for conference alignment for at least another 50 years. That's how long USU has been trying to get in such a spot. Having been accepted into the Mountain West, effective in 2013, the Aggies are now in a league that just feels right. Rivalries with Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, UNLV and New Mexico are almost sure to ensue.
Meanwhile, there will be fewer Southwestern Whoozits or hyphenated Whatzits on the schedule than the past. Mostly it will be trips to places they should have been playing since 1962, when the original WAC rejected them.
"It feels great. It feels right," said Barnes, USU's athletics director, who recently returned from meeting with conference officials. "It was good to be in that room, and certainly there was a sense of security. So to finally be on the inside looking out is a very, very good feeling."
If there is an overriding goal in college sports these days, it's security. One moment a program can be feeling safe, the next it can be on an ice floe. In the last half century USU has operated as an independent, as well as a member of the PCAA, Big West, Sun Belt and Western Athletic conferences. The latest episode was probably the most precarious of all. Two years ago the Aggies fielded an inquiry from the Mountain West, which Barnes ended almost before it began (see accompanying story). He says it never got to the offer stage. Shortly after, news reports said BYU would join the WAC in all sports except football, further solidifying the conference's base.
But suddenly Fresno State and Nevada announced they were abandoning ship for the MWC and BYU never did join the WAC. The conference was adrift at sea. Tired of plugging holes, even commissioner Karl Benson left for a similar spot with the Sun Belt.
Eventually the Mountain West added Hawaii and San Jose State to its football mix, too, putting the WAC on life support.
So after all this conference upheaval, the obvious question is this: Is it safe to come out now?
Truth is that the changes in college sports probably aren't finished. Yet none of the current MWC schools seems likely, or able, to jump to a bigger league. So if "mid-major" conferences are to survive, the MWC is a good model to follow. However, Barnes is concerned about the rush for wealth — which is an upgrade to his former "worried" mode. Ask him if there's a place for smaller conferences on the BCS level and he says yes, but hastens to note the gap between the privileged and the masses is widening. USU has a $21 million athletic department budget — a third bigger than it was a few years ago — yet it's still only about the same amount as each Pac-12 football team receives in TV revenue alone. Tack on bowl shares and digital rights and it's a cash cow for the big schools.
Proposals to pay NCAA athletes a few thousand dollars beyond books, board and tuition are fine, as long as you have millions coming in. But MWC teams don't.
"One thing we need to see, that is trending the wrong way, is revenue share. There's a reason that a small market franchise such as Green Bay, Wis., can flourish in the NFL. The answer is revenue share," Barnes said.
Meanwhile, USU moves ahead. It recently broke ground on a $6.2 million strength and conditioning center, next to the shining Laub Complex. Barnes predicts it will rival any in the country. Stadium upgrades are also in the plans. The university has revamped its athletics logo and the number of scholarship fund members has nearly doubled to 1,500 in recent years.
As to where the school will be in five years, Barnes said, "We want to win championships on a consistent basis, graduate student-athletes at the highest level possible and have a chance in all sports."
None of this is a stretch, considering USU was 4-2 in football last year against schools either entering or currently in the Mountain West. All of USU's key coaches are under multi-year contracts and the programs are better funded than a few years ago. But that doesn't mean Barnes is now in cruise control. A couple of days before the formal announcement that USU was joining the MWC, last month, he was in his kitchen with his wife, worrying about various school-related issues. As he describes it, he was "still wound very, very tight," despite knowing the Aggies were taking a nice step forward.
"Will you just enjoy this for a few minutes?' " she said.
It seemed a fair question to Barnes.
"I've got to do that …" Barnes told a writer this week, then added "while continuing to look forward."
In that sense, the sky in Logan has seldom seemed more blue.