It legitimizes everything we've done and do at Utah Valley University. I certainly feel a great amount of responsibility to be able to put together a competitive team on the court. —Dick Hunsaker, UVU men's basketball head coach
OREM — Bereft of automatic bids to NCAA postseason tournaments, UVU's best was never good enough.
Now, with the clout of the Western Athletic Conference behind them, the Wolverines are ready for the change they've dreamed of for years.
Utah Valley University officially joins the WAC on Monday, a move that obliterates the last obstacle between the school and a level playing field with the rest of the NCAA's Division I programs.
"It's (like) when you're getting ready to take your free throw and everybody's watching, or hitting the putt on the 18th green, (or) before the puck dropped in Game 6 (of the Stanley Cup Finals)," said soon-to-be athletic director Vince Otoupal. "It's a really nervous excitement."
Otoupal won't officially start guiding UVU into its new WAC era until his official starting date of July 15, but his comments already mirror those of the coaches and players within the Wolverines' athletic department.
"It legitimizes everything we've done and do at Utah Valley University," said men's basketball coach Dick Hunsaker. "I certainly feel a great amount of responsibility to be able to put together a competitive team on the court."
Self-imposed pressure shouldn't be expected or required — UVU has gone from being a community college to a state college to an NCAA, conference-aligned Division I school in just 25 years — but the athletic administration, coaches and players are all in agreement about one thing.
They don't want to waste any time cashing in on the new benefits that come packaged with their new conference.
"I think overall, everyone is very excited about the chance at an automatic bid to go to an NCAA tournament," men's basketball center Ben Aird said. "I think that's a huge draw."
Hunsaker, who watched stars like Ryan Toolson, Ronnie Price and Isiah Williams enjoy stellar careers without having opportunities on bigger stages, concurred with Aird.
"We've been waiting for a long, long time to get in an AQ conference," Hunsaker said. "To be in the WAC with its brand name, it's going to take on a special meaning. This inaugural season will be one to remember."
The "brand-name" factor, along with wins, is what UVU hopes will draw increased local recognition. Game attendance has been sporadic, often depending on the quality of visiting opponents (such as Penn State wrestling or Arizona baseball) or record-breaking winning streaks (such as baseball's in 2012 or men's basketball in 2011).
"You look at BYU and Utah State or (other schools) who have been in the WAC in previous years, that kind of set that foundation of being a conference that's recognizable to people," Aird said. "It's going to help bring the community together with greater support for UVU athletics because people will say 'Oh, they're in the WAC. We know what that conference is.' They're going to want to come out to games more; they're going to want to be more involved."2 comments on this story
The turnaround from the Great West to WAC could be as harsh as it is exciting. Hunsaker admitted the recruiting window was small to prepare for the transition.
Like the rest of UVU's athletic teams in 2013-14, however, Hunsaker said his team will roll with it, ready or not.
"We've not had time to recruit to the WAC and an automatic conference, but as they say, 'ready, steady, go.'"
Matt Petersen is the Sports Web Editor for DeseretNews.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheMattPetersen.