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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 14, 2004

Louisiana Tech reaffirms commitment to WAC

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Western Athletic Conference membership appears to be under attack again, but this time it could be a battle the conference wins.

Two weeks after Texas-El Paso became the fourth member in six months to announce that it would leave the WAC, speculation is growing that the Sun Belt Conference has its eyes on Louisiana Tech.

In recent days, newspapers in New Orleans and Lafayette, La., have reported the Sun Belt's interest in Louisiana Tech, a former member. In addition, Sports Illustrated.com reported the Sun Belt "... is trying to lure Louisiana Tech."

But Jim Oakes, Louisiana Tech's athletic director, told The Honolulu Advertiser yesterday the school remains committed to the WAC. "We have made it clear on several occasions our intention is to remain a member of the WAC," Oakes said.

"The bowl opportunities, national television possibilities and substantial revenue sharing make the WAC the right conference for our athletic program," Oakes added.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson said "(Louisiana Tech) has indicated to me and the conference that they intend to be part of the WAC and we're moving forward with that understanding."

UTEP's defection coupled with previously announced departures by Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa leave Louisiana Tech in a precarious position for 2005-06 as the WAC's only Central Time zone member and an outpost more than 800 miles removed from its nearest WAC opponent.

It is a situation the Sun Belt, which includes the University of New Orleans, Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe, is reportedly attempting to exploit by trying to get Louisiana Tech to return to a conference it left four years ago.

The move is seen as a pre-emptive strike by the Sun Belt to keep the WAC from taking one or more of its members. The WAC has said it is evaluating North Texas, Louisiana-Lafayette and Idaho — all members of the Sun Belt Conference — as possible candidates for expansion. North Texas is believed to be the favorite heading into the WAC Board of Directors meetings in three weeks.

In anticipation, Sun Belt members have issued a so-called "solidarity" statement pledging to stay together, a move that is interpreted as attempting to push Louisiana Tech into its camp. But the solidarity may last only until the WAC makes an offer.

Rick Villareal, North Texas athletic director, said yesterday that "no official offer" has been made to the school.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.