The Sun Belt Conference has a new commissioner, and the reeling Western Athletic Conference has lost one.
Karl Benson, commissioner of the WAC since 1994 and the point man through some tumultuous times for that league, was officially announced as the Sun Belt's fifth-ever commissioner in a Thursday teleconference. And he didn't waste time in saying that the league was going to actively seek new membership from the South and Southeast regions of the country.
"The current footprint of the Sun Belt is very conducive," Benson said in reference to the league's geographic location. "There is a pool of possible members that are already in that footprint, both current FCS members and FCS members that have indicated the desire to move up to the FBS.
"We have 10 football schools and one non-football school (Arkansas-Little Rock), and without getting specific there's an advantage in getting to 12 (in football) to take advantage of additional post-season opportunities. In the coming weeks, the Sun Belt board will establish a committee to evaluate the current membership and any future membership."
Benson will begin his service to the league on April 1, replacing outgoing commissioner Wright Waters who announced his retirement last October after 14 years. Waters will officially retire on June 30, but Benson said both will be working on the league’s behalf during that three-month period.
“There will be a transition period where Wright and I will be working together,” Benson said, “and that time I’ll be focusing on the bigger picture. It’s not the first time a commissioner has moved from one conference to another. While there may be some sensitivity and awkwardness, once you change positions you’re obligated to the new conference and I will do that with the Sun Belt.”
Part of the sensitivity surrounds the future of the WAC, with Benson’s departure casting another pall on a league that has lost cornerstone schools Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii from its membership over the past 18 months. Boise is in the Mountain West this year and the other three will leave the WAC at the end of this academic year.
The WAC currently has Louisiana Tech, Utah State, New Mexico State, Idaho and San Jose State as members, and has Texas State and Texas-San Antonio and non-football members Seattle and Denver – ironically, a school leaving the Sun Belt for the WAC this summer -- joining next year. Boise State rejoins the WAC – if it still exists – in all sports except football when it joins the Big East in 2013.
But even that WAC alignment is in danger, as is possibly the current Sun Belt alignment. The recently announced consolidation of the Mountain West and Conference USA could mean more attempted poaching of WAC and Sun Belt members. The current 16 in the MWC and C-USA memberships have expressed a desire for a coast-to-coast league that will include from 18 to 24 members, and some of the WAC remnants and Sun Belt members have been mentioned in the proposed new consortium.
Fighting off that poaching of institutions by other leagues and securing new membership appears to be one of Benson’s charges for the Sun Belt’s future.
“We hope to be able to show in the coming weeks that the future is bright for the Sun Belt,” Benson said, “and in light of the changes in Conference USA and the Mountain West, the Sun Belt’s position has increased tremendously. We hope to demonstrate that the Sun Belt is on par with any of the other non-BCS conferences.
“The message we want to give is the Sun Belt would be a good landing spot for any institution that fits the footprint.”
Benson and Dr. Jack Hawkins, president of Troy University and the current president of the Sun Belt, each harped on the Sun Belt’s geographic footprint during Thursday’s announcement. And without calling names, Benson made references to current and future WAC members La. Tech, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio, as well as some Conference USA members, as possibilities for Sun Belt expansion.
“The first priority would be existing FBS members that are currently participating in football at the highest level and that are in our existing footprint,” Benson said. “I’m not going to get specific, but all you have to do is look at a map and see the current FBS members that aren’t members of the Sun Belt that meet that criteria.
“That’s one of the attractive pieces of the Sun Belt to me, the existing geography. You look at what’s transpired with Conference USA and the Mountain west, the amount of geography that they have by themselves, and when you couple the two, it certainly is not the geographical alignment that the Sun Belt has.”
And when Benson was asked specifically about two Sun Belt schools already being in Louisiana and if there was room for a third (re: La. Tech), Benson only added, “There are some schools that meet the footprint.”
“Geographic proximity fosters natural rivalries, saves dollars and reduces travel costs,” Hawkins said. “It makes sense.”
The Sun Belt currently includes nine football schools – UL, UL Monroe, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, North Texas and Western Kentucky – and non-football-playing UALR and South Alabama – although USA will add football in 2013.
Waters is the man responsible for starting and upgrading football in the Sun Belt while he was commissioner, and was also instrumental in the founding of the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl that is played each December in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The New Orleans Bowl has been affiliated with the Sun Belt since its inception.
The Sun Belt has also been able to avoid the cherry-picking that has plagued other leagues, and has become more competitive in football over the past several years. Even though the Belt went 1-2 in its three bowl games this year, the Sun Belt boasts a 7-7 bowl record since 2005 – a better mark than the ACC, the Big Ten, Conference USA and the WAC.
“Today, the Sun Belt is stronger academically, athletically and financially than any time in our history,” Hawkins said.
Benson has been WAC commissioner since 1994, after serving four years as commissioner of the Mid-American, and had been part of several realignments in that league. Shortly after he became the WAC boss, the league expanded to 16 schools – the country’s first “super-sized conference” – before eight schools broke off in 1999 and formed the Mountain West.
Even with the membership changes, Benson oversaw a league that has sent multiple teams into BCS bowl games and 38 total teams to bowl games since 2001. In men’s basketball, the WAC has sent at least two teams to the NCAA Tournament in 24 of the past 28 seasons.