LOGAN — There will be no parade down Main Street, or pep rally on Old Main Hill, but make no mistake, July 1 may be the most important day in Utah State athletics' history.
When the calendar turns over, the Aggies will officially be able to call themselves members of the Mountain West Conference and will finally be headed home, even if it’s to a place they have never been.
“We will be exactly where we need to be,” said USU athletic director Scott Barnes.
It has been a long road to find a home for Utah State. The Aggies have wandered the collegiate landscape for more than 50 years since not being invited during the formation of the Western Athletic Conference in 1962.
In that half a century, the football team alone has spent time in four conferences and had two stints at independence. Stays in leagues like the Pacific Coast, Big West and Sun Belt conferences paired them against teams from far-off locales or much smaller schools that no longer field a football team.
A two-year foray into independence, following the death of the Big West football conference at the turn of the millennium, nearly killed the program all together. When the WAC, the conference they had always longed to join, finally offered up an invite in 2005, it was a rare glimmer of hope for the nomadic Aggies. By 2010, their new-found permanence was shaken when Boise State bolted for the Mountain West, placing the WAC football future in jeopardy. An invite into the MWC appeared to be the only possible lifeline for the program to avoid revisiting the dark days of independence.
The Mountain West is a place that Barnes likes to call “relative stability,” which in an ever-changing collegiate sports landscape is the best anyone can hope for. The move isn’t just a place-holder for the Aggies, but a place where the school thinks it can grow and prosper for the next 50 years.
“The key word used by our membership for the past six months has been ‘stability,’ ” said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. “The MW has never had more members (12), nor a greater commonality. There have been decades of games played amongst all 12 institutions.”
In May 2012, the Aggies were saved from the sinking ship and officially invited into the Mountain West.
The move brings the Aggies into the fold with schools they first played more than 110 years ago in Wyoming and Colorado State, and also includes more recent WAC rivals Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State, Hawaii and San Jose State.
Geographically, the move is a huge win for USU. After playing WAC road games in places such as Ruston, La., it will be refreshing when most Mountain West games will be a short plane ride and within a day’s drive for fans. Last season, San Jose State was the closest conference road game; in 2013, the farthest the Aggies will travel from Cache Valley is for a visit to the same Spartan team.
Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West since its inception, believes that the Aggies are not just a school with convenient geography to balance out the conference, but an institution that brings a lot to the table.
“Utah State will be a tremendous fit,” said Thompson. “In two of the more prominent sports, football and men’s basketball, USU will be a contender for championships immediately.
“Culturally, the campus has the look and feel of several large land grant universities currently in the Mountain West. Academically, it will immediately rank as one of the top universities in the league. I have the utmost respect for the leadership of president Stan Albrecht and director of athletics Scott Barnes.”
For the headline programs, the Mountain West will bring a consistently higher level of competition to the Aggies. For Matt Wells and the football team, there will be no more cupcakes on the league schedule. They will now have tie-ins to six different bowl games, compared to a single tie-in last season. Men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill will no longer have to worry about his strength of schedule and at-large bids, as the Mountain West ranked as the most difficult conference in the nation last year and sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament.
While fans and athletes are enthusiastic about the transition, there is nobody more elated than Barnes. Elevating the Aggies to a new conference was one of Barnes' first priorities after taking the position just more than five years ago, and has included several painful near misses. In August 2010, BYU was on the brink of joining the WAC in non-football sports and swinging the balance of power, but the move famously blew up in the faces of the Aggies when Fresno State and Nevada bolted to the greener pastures of the Mountain West.
Barnes will celebrate the Aggies finally breaking through by spending some time with his son on a trout stream and enjoying a rare day off. If anyone has earned the privilege, it is Barnes, who worked tirelessly to make the move, and then once it became official hit overdrive in rallying the alumni. Barnes recognized early on the Aggies would be woefully behind in terms of athletic facilities and spending and would have no hope of fielding consistently competitive programs without getting on track in those key areas.
In the ensuing year and a half, the university has built a state-of-the-art strength and conditioning center and just broke ground on the Wayne Estes Center basketball and volleyball practice facility. Both new buildings came via funding from longtime loyal donors, but would likely not have been possible without the move to the Mountain West and Barnes’ tireless efforts.
The anticipation is widespread across the entire alumni base. Barnes reported that football season ticket sales were well ahead of the pace the Aggies set last year.
“We don’t have a big parade planned, but we are all very excited and looking forward to the move,” Barnes said. “We hope the fans are excited too and ready to ‘join the climb’ with us.”
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.
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