Big Sky emerges as potential lifeline for WAC
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LAS CRUCES - The Big Sky Conference has emerged as a potential lifeline for the dwindling Western Athletic Conference.
In a radio interview with a Boise radio station, Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said his league is exploring a merger with the Western Athletic Conference that could save the WAC as a non-football league in 2013-14 while keeping two automatic qualifiers for the NCAA basketball tournament in the west.
"There may not be anything but it's something we need to look at before it (the WAC) goes black," Fullerton said.
WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd said on Thursday that a merger between the Big Sky and WAC is realistic, but still extremely preliminary.
"Doug and I led a commissioner's meeting in June in Chicago and it was an idea that originally he brought to my attention well before that," Hurd said. "I re-approached him in June with a different version. We both feel there is some merit to it."
Fullerton said New Mexico State has been slow to join the discussion in hopes of securing Mountain West, Conference USA or Sun Belt membership, whereas Idaho has had in-depth conversations with the Big Sky about merging certain Big Sky teams with the WAC for Olympic sports while Big Sky teams remain under the Big Sky umbrella for football - currently at the FCS level.
NMSU, Idaho, Seattle, Denver and Boise State are the remaining WAC schools for Olympic sports in 2013, but Boise State is expected to join the Big West before school starts in the fall.
The Big Sky has 11 full members and 13 football playing schools and Fullerton hopes to get to an even number for scheduling purposes.
"The bottom line is there are elements that you have to meet for Division I conference requirements," Hurd said. "It's not as simple as putting seven or eight on one side. The right sports have to be sponsored and the right championships have to be sponsored."
The WAC would look for a minimum of eight total teams, Hurd said.
"The ideal number for scheduling for non-football is even, whether it's eight or 10 doesn't make a difference," Hurd said. "Geography is another aspect to it."
In the short term, combining the two leagues would keep an automatic qualifier available for the NCAA basketball tournament for each league.
"Before we let the automatic berths go away in the west and turn them back to the NCAA, we should at least talk to them about the possibilities," Fullerton said.
Finding a league that would keep NMSU alive as an NCAA Tournament basketball program has been overshadowed publicly by finding a home for the football program.
A merger with the Big Sky would likely mean NMSU and Idaho would either have to find another conference to play football or play as an independent. Seattle and Denver, the other WAC schools, do not support football teams. Idaho athletics director Rob Spear said on his Twitter feed that conversations with the Big Sky thus far have centered on non-football sports.
"In this specific model, I would say the WAC would be operating as a non-football league," Hurd said. "We are exploring every conceivable option and this is one of those options.
"I always think there is hope, but to be realistic, the odds are difficult, certainly at the FBS level."
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