Stephens: Time to step back and weigh the Toppers’ options

Brad Stephens

Mention the words “Sun Belt Conference” to a WKU fan, and you probably won’t get a good reaction.

The Toppers have been in the league since 1982, marking 30 years of frustration from their fans as to why WKU seems stuck in the league.

Yet, while other schools come and go (South Florida, UAB, Louisiana Tech, to name a few), the Toppers keep plugging away in the league.

Through countless realignments, some bad TV deals and a lot of empty basketball arenas, WKU has generally been one of the Sun Belt’s few bright spots.

That’s why Wednesday was such a disappointment for Topper fans everywhere.

First came the mid-morning announcement that WKU’s geographical rival, Middle Tennessee State, was packing its bags and heading to the Conference-USA, giving the league 13 football-playing members.

Common sense said the league would add a 14th and that someone else would get a call up from the Sun Belt.

President Gary Ransdell and Athletics Director Todd Stewart released a three-sentence statement about conference realignment — a statement that perhaps signaled hope for a move by not mentioning the Sun Belt.

The 14th team got its call soon after, but it wasn’t the Toppers. C-USA chose the sun of Boca Raton, Fla., over the south-central Kentucky hospitality of Bowling Green and picked Florida Atlantic as lucky member No. 14.

For the next few hours, social media was filled with the release of more pent-up Sun Belt frustration, including a large dose of blame heaped on Stewart and Ransdell.

But late in the afternoon, a local radio personality/sports bar TV commercial guy revived a lot of folks’ bigger-conference dreams by tweeting something about “sources,” WKU, New Mexico State, C-USA and an announcement that day.

For the second time in one day, some fans frustrated by 30 years in the Sun Belt saw a chance out.

But alas, there was no announcement, and the Toppers finished the day in the same place they’d been for the last three decades — the good old Fun Belt.

Now comes a major decision time for Ransdell, Stewart, the Board of Regents and others who make such decisions — stay the Sun Belt course or go to another league, probably the C-USA or Mid-American Conference?

The overwhelming circumstances show staying in the Sun Belt probably isn’t too viable an option for the league.

Ransdell was instrumental in Karl Benson’s selection this spring as new Sun Belt commissioner, and there’s no doubt that he feels a sense of loyalty to Benson and to the league.

But without MTSU, FAU and the two schools that left the Sun Belt for C-USA this spring, North Texas and Florida International, the Sun Belt has lost nearly half its base of established FBS programs.

In their places are schools like Texas State, Georgia State and potentially others that are making the tricky transition from FCS to FBS.

I’d doubt the Toppers would want to sit in a league next to several teams with little chance of national relevance in the coming years if other options are out there.

That, among other factors, means WKU is in a better position in C-USA or the MAC.

Between those two, it would make more geographical sense for the Toppers to join the Sun Belt exodus and head south to C-USA rather than north to the MAC.

But in an unstable era of college athletics, the MAC does offer more stability.

The midwestern league currently fields 13 teams. One more team — and of current FBS members that could be poached, WKU is the most well-positioned geographically — would make it an even 14.

Unlike the C-USA, which not too long ago had plans to merge with the Mountain West Conference and form a 24-team super league, the MAC doesn’t seem to have any visions of super conference grandeur.

Of course, a move to a cold weather league might not be too popular with fans used to road trips to warmer, sunnier locales.

No matter what WKU does, there will be benefits and drawbacks.

Right now, it seems like all three moves — staying put, going to C-USA when it moves to 16 or joining the MAC — are all available options.

And while a lot of people want something to happen right this second, WKU is probably making the right move by not jumping to a rash decision on the matter.

While it didn’t happen Wednesday, it’s starting to look more apparent that WKU’s day to leave the Sun Belt is coming.