New Sun Belt commissioner expresses interest to expand league

Brad Stephens

It was WKU President Gary Ransdell who first convinced Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson to apply for the same spot with the Sun Belt Conference.

The two were in San Francisco for a November meeting, which came just weeks after Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters had announced his retirement.

Perennial national football contender Boise State had recently left the WAC for the Mountain West Conference, with fellow WAC members Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada primed to make the same move.

With the WAC scrambling to find football schools, Ransdell saw an open door through which to lure Benson to greener pastures.

“Being one who’s fairly aware of the dynamics among conferences and intercollegiate athletics these days, I knew that the WAC was a little bit unstable,” Ransdell said. “I talked to Karl to gauge his interest in this position, and he did indicate he would have an interest.”

The Sun Belt’s five-month search for Waters’ replacement ended on Thursday with the naming of Benson as the league’s fifth commissioner.

Benson, 60, will transition to his new job starting in April and become full-time Sun Belt commissioner on July 1.

He said during an introductory teleconference that the Sun Belt is “well-positioned to take advantage” of a rapidly changing college sports landscape.

Earlier this week the Mountain West and Conference-USA announced their intentions to merge their leagues, creating a 16-team conference which could grow to 24 members. Some Sun Belt schools could be candidates to fill up the remaining slots in that league.

The MWC-CUSA move is just the latest in a line of shifts which have changed much of the Division-I sports landscape over the last two years.

Benson said the Sun Belt will examine its place in these negotiations by establishing a committee “that will look to evaluate the current membership and the future membership.”

He said a future goal for the league would be to increase its membership to 12 football schools, thus making it eligible to hold a conference championship game.

The Sun Belt currently has nine schools which compete at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, though league-member South Alabama is slated to gain full FBS status in 2013.

“There has to be a reason to grow larger and get bigger and to add schools, and obviously by going to 12 that provides the opportunity,” Benson said. “But again, it’s too early to be specific on what the outcome might be.”

Benson said that FBS schools within the Sun Belt’s current geographical footprint will get priority consideration for membership.

“I think that ideally you’d like to see some sense of regionalism,” Benson said. “…Conferences were put together to establish regular season competition with schools in the same neighborhood with common commonalities.”

Ransdell said he would like to see the Sun Belt eventually grow to 14 football-playing schools, creating divisions which he said would reduce travel costs and allow for a conference championship game.

Out of the 11 current FBS conferences, the Sun Belt is one of five to not have a league title game.

“Conferences expand to either get better or survive, and we are absolutely not in a survival mode,” Ransdell said. “We are in a ‘get better’ mode. And that’s precisely the way Karl is going to approach his duties.”

During his 18 years as WAC commissioner, Benson was on both ends of the conference realignment spectrum.

He saw the league grow to 16 teams in 1996, two years after he became commissioner.

But three years later some of the league’s most prominent schools, including Air Force, Brigham Young and Utah, split off to form the Mountain West.

Benson’s WAC responded to that shift by adding Nevada, Boise State and Louisiana Tech as full members.

CUSA came next, raiding the league of Texas Christian in 2001 and of Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa in 2005.

Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State were all added to the WAC to compensate for those losses.

Finally the Mountain West came calling again, taking Hawaii, Fresno State, Boise State and Nevada in in 2010.

Athletics Director Ross Bjork said he didn’t view the WAC’s troubles with membership retention as a point of concern for Benson’s prospects with the Sun Belt.

“The way it’s gone over the last two years or so, there’s been so many variables, I think Karl has actually allowed his league to survive longer than maybe it should have,” Bjork said. “What he’s done to hold things together, and I think the ebbs and flows he’s seen over time, I think that’s a benefit to our conference that he knows how it works, both ways.”

Benson also has experience negotiating multi-year bowl contracts, which he did with 11 separate bowls during his time as WAC commissioner.

Ransdell said Benson’s experience with bowl deals could prove important for a league which has just two direct bowl tie-ins.

Benson said that in addition to “greater bowl opportunities,” “greater TV opportunities” and “greater revenue opportunities” will be priorities when he takes the job.

“With all the dynamics in play,” Ransdell said, “he’s exactly what we need in a commissioner to help chart our future course as a conference.”