Sun Belt adding Idaho and Utah State

Kyle Tucker

Travis Hudson thought Sun Belt Conference meant warm-weather competition. Don’t look now, but Idaho and Utah State are adding to a compelling argument against that.

Utah State accepted all-sports admittance into the Sun Belt Friday – football next year and all other sports in 2004-05. Football member Idaho is apparently next in line to be a full-blown participant, as the Sun Belt is creeping toward a coast-to-coast configuration.

Last year, traveling to then-westernmost Sun Belt foes Denver and New Mexico State, Hudson and his Lady Topper volleyball team missed a flight, got stranded in New Mexico for a night and lost some luggage on the trip back to Bowling Green. The trip was not only expensive, but exhaustive.

“It’s good to be home,” Hudson said a year ago, wearing a mask of stubble made possible by the razor that ran away at the airport.

But in all likelihood, neither Hudson nor his colleagues in Western athletics will ever have to take their teams across the country to compete in the land of potatoes or the Beehive State.

According to Western Athletics Director Wood Selig, a team-swap may be in the near future. Selig’s scenario would see the Sun Belt unload Denver, NMSU, Idaho and Utah State in favor of Tulsa, Rice, Southern Methodist and Louisiana Tech in a deal with the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences.

“We may or may not ever see (Utah State and Idaho),” Selig said, “depending on what happens with conference alignment across the country, as well as within our own league.”

He said there is no timetable on the potential swap, and no guarantee that it will happen. But the acquisition of Idaho and Utah State puts the Sun Belt in good position if other conferences want to talk trades.

“We’re in a pretty good power position to negotiate, or discuss swap options with the WAC and the Mountain West,” Selig said. “I think we’re strengthening our league’s position nationally to become a player in future affiliation configurations.”

He said if the teams in the west remain part of the conference for the long-term, though, Western may still never play them in the regular season.

Selig outlined a situation that would create western, central and eastern divisions within the conference. He said he isn’t concerned that the Sun Belt is becoming like the far flung Conference USA, in that “the only thing its member institutions have in common are budget problems.”

“No, because I think we’ll be smart,” Selig said. “Even if we’ve got those league members for the next 10 years, it’s still a positive move. We can get creative to where we have less travel cost than we do now. No matter what, this is a positive move.”

It also sets up another intriguing possibility: Western playing Division I football. While it’s not in the near future, the move could happen somewhere down the road.

Selig agreed it may be a logical step toward Western’s continuing pursuit of national recognition.

“First, regardless of whether or not there are future league swaps to be made, what (the addition of Idaho and Utah State) does is establish the Sun Belt Conference as a I-A football playing league nationally,” Selig said. “I think I-A leagues have greater visibility and exposure on a year-round basis.”

And Selig said while no plans are in place now for Western to make the jump from I-AA and its Gateway Football Conference affiliation, its membership in the Sun Belt in all other sports makes that a more viable possibility.

“The most immediate benefit is that we will have a league affiliation that many teams that jump to I-A have trouble finding,” Selig said. “We’d get in an already existing league, so the chances of us being accommodated are greater.”