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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 23, 2003

Mountain West professes interest in Hawai'i

By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

 •  Western Athletic Conference
Boise State
Fresno State
Louisiana Tech
San Jose State
Texas-El Paso
Leaving in 2005
Southern Methodist

Joining in 2005

Utah State
New Mexico State

Mountain West Conference

Air Force
Brigham Young
Colorado State
New Mexico
San Diego State
There were separate developments announced yesterday that will impact the future of University of Hawai'i sports.

The Western Athletic Conference, of which UH is a member, extended memberships to Utah State and New Mexico State of the Sun Belt Conference, UH-Manoa chancellor Peter Englert confirmed last night.

The two schools will join the WAC for the 2005-'06 academic year, increasing membership to nine schools. Last week, Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa announced they will leave the WAC and join Conference USA in July 2005.

Also, UH president Evan Dobelle said he has had a conversation with a representative of the Mountain West Conference, and the eight-school conference is "interested" in UH as a potential member.

Dobelle declined to name the representative, only saying he is "president of a Mountain West university ... speaking on behalf of the Mountain West Conference."

Dobelle said the president was not from Brigham Young University, one of eight schools that seceded from the WAC in July 1999 to form the Mountain West Conference.

Dobelle said the conversation "was a point of inquiry on our interest. I said we have multiple interests, and that would be one."

When asked if Mountain West officials were considering UH for membership, Dobelle said, "they were interested."

The WAC has been caught in the falling dominoes triggered when three Big East schools jumped to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Yesterday, the WAC finally responded, offering memberships to Utah State and New Mexico, and hinting that more invitations could be forthcoming.

The WAC could expand further by adding from the Sun Belt's other football-playing schools — Arkansas State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas. WAC commissioner Karl Benson included those schools on a list of possible candidates announced Monday.

Englert confirmed the WAC's Board of Directors, composed of the presidents and chancellors of the member schools, met in a teleconference yesterday. It was the second teleconference in three days. Only leaders of the seven remaining WAC schools participated. Englert represented UH.

During yesterday's meeting, the WAC board voted to extend invitations to Utah State and New Mexico State. Both schools are expected to announce their acceptances in separate news conferences today.

The additions will create a balanced eight-game, home-and-home football schedule in the WAC.

New Mexico State, which has lobbied for membership for more than a decade, is located near WAC member Texas-El Paso. Utah State will become Boise State's travel partner in basketball.

While supportive of the WAC, Dobelle said, "I've always been on the record since the week I got here that I felt the Mountain West was the best conference for us, given the fact that I didn't think the Pac-10 was a reality. So we'll see what happens."

Dobelle said he has heard the speculation that UH would have to pay a hefty buy-in fee to change conferences. But those "stories," he said, are generated "not through the Mountain West or through us about all of this money that it's going to cost."

Dobelle said UH is attractive because of its tie-in with the Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl and the football program's popularity with national cable networks.

"I'm not sure we're negotiating publicly about something I thought I've never tangibly understood was a requirement," Dobelle said. "That when you join any kind of an organization, there's an entry fee. But what do we bring? We bring a lot. We don't bring the West Coast, because (the Mountain West has) a lot of the West Coast. We bring the East Coast. Because of the time difference, we bring television in New York and Boston in prime time. I think ESPN would be pretty interested in us joining the Mountain West."

Earlier this year, the Mountain West presidents voted to explore the possibility of adding members. But Dobelle said the Mountain West first must decide whether to add just one school or as many as four, which would create two six-team divisions.

Dobelle said he has heard of plans in which Western teams from the WAC and Mountain West would break off to form a new conference. But he said, "I tried to sketch it out myself and I just couldn't figure out how it works."

Reach Stephen Tsai at stsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8051.