In addition to welcoming five new member institutions — Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State, Southern Utah and Stephen F. Austin — the Western Athletic Conference announced Thursday morning its intention to begin sponsoring Division I college football as a conference for the first time since 2012-13.
The WAC announced during a news conference in Houston that it will sponsor football at the Football Championship Subdivision level as early as 2021-22 with the potential to move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision level in the near future as well. Meanwhile, UTRGV Athletic Director Chasse Conque and university President Guy Bailey announced shortly thereafter that UTRGV will also begin the process of exploring the addition of a DI college football program in the Rio Grande Valley.
“By adding all the Texas schools, it creates natural rivalries, reduces the distance we have to travel and makes our lives in athletics a lot easier. This is a huge day for the WAC, UTRGV and everyone involved because it solves a lot of problems for us,” Bailey said, who served as the university president at Texas Tech during the last major wave of DI conference realignment.
“The Big 12 at that time did not have a plan to expand, build itself or strengthen itself. It was a very difficult situation. That experience really led me to push my whole time here on expanding and building the strongest conference possible. You’re either aggressive and proactive or reactive and deal with consequences.”
UTRGV conducted a football feasibility study led by former XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck and former Texas Longhorns and current North Carolina Tar Heels head football coach Mack Brown several years ago to explore the opportunity of adding a football program.
Bailey and Conque, however, noted that with Thursday’s announcement a path forward for a potential Vaqueros football program has become a more feasible and realistic possibility, one that they have now committed to exploring in depth.
“At that time there was really no path forward, so we had the material but we didn’t really pursue it. This does, possibly, create a path forward for us. We’re committed to exploring this again and looking carefully at the possibility of adding football,” Bailey said. “Having said that, there’s a process that has to go through that requires student approval and board approval. There are a number of things in the process that have to be done, but we are committed to exploring that process.”
“Any time you look at adding new programs, whether athletic or academic, it’s about community buy-in. It starts with our campus community, our students, faculty and staff. But nonetheless, this is an exciting day for the Western Athletic Conference,” Conque said. “Certainly, football is a big piece and football is back in the WAC. That’s definitely evident with the expansion (Thursday), but I think it’s easy to lose sight of what this will do for all 16 of our sports across the board. I couldn’t be more thrilled and the energy here today is phenomenal.”
Before any addition of a football program can be made official at UTRGV, however, the university must be approved for membership in the sport by the WAC Board of Directors as well as the school’s board of trustees.
Bailey and Conque said those internal conversations with the conference and campus community have begun in earnest following Thursday’s announcements at the conference level.
“This isn’t something that an AD or president can simply say, ‘This is something that we’re going to do.’ There’s a process that has to be followed,” Bailey said. “Our commitment is to engage in that process.”
“Today was a conversation starter,” Conque said. “The previous study was focused on FBS football, which is a piece of the puzzle that I think is really important as we communicate on our campus and as we talk with our external constituents. This first approach is FCS, so we have to go back and update the financials and do some work internally to make sure we have some things aligned and speak to specifics.”
Bailey added that the potential addition of a Vaqueros football program would not raise student fees at the university.
There are other hurdles that UTRGV would have to clear first before officially sponsoring DI college football too, which would likely not occur until at least the 2023 or 2024 seasons.
NCAA bylaws state that DI football programs must have a home stadium with a minimum seating capacity of at least 10,000.
While the university currently does not possess such a facility, UTRGV has several options with regard to fulfilling that requirement.
H-E-B Park in Edinburg, home of the USL’s RGV Toros, currently seats 9,735 which could easily be expanded to meet the 10,000-seat threshold. UTRGV could also look to build its own football stadium near its Edinburg or Brownsville campuses or seek to use an existing high school football facility as a temporary solution.
There are currently four high school football stadiums across the Rio Grande Valley that already meet or will soon exceed that seating-capacity threshold: Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco (15,000), Coyote Stadium in La Joya (12,600), PSJA ISD Stadium in Pharr (11,600) and McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium (13,500), which is set to undergo a multi-million dollar renovation in the near future.
Multiple sources within McAllen ISD have told The Monitor that those renovation plans include a proposal to bring back the Palm Bowl to McAllen Veterans Memorial Stadium, which served as the host site for the NCAA Division II football championship from 1981-85.
Furthermore, UTRGV would be required to add additional women’s athletic programs should it decide to sponsor DI football in order to remain in compliance with Title IX regulations.
The WAC currently sponsors 10 men’s and 10 women’s sports, making softball and/or women’s swimming and diving potential options for UTRGV.
“That’s something you’ll see us explore and something that we’ve been exploring,” Conque said. “There are several opportunities for us to enhance our portfolio of sports programs.
“It starts with our campus community, hearing from our students, working with our student-leadership groups and seeing what fits us best. There are some natural things that I think we can all assume would be good fits for our region and the Valley, but it’s exciting that the footprint is growing and the sports offerings within the WAC are strengthening.”
With the additions of the four Texas schools and Southern Utah, the Western Athletic Conference will have eight member schools that currently sponsor football programs: Abilene Christian, Dixie State, Lamar, New Mexico State, Sam Houston State, Southern Utah, Stephen F. Austin and Tarleton State.
New Mexico State currently competes as an FBS independent program, while Dixie State and Tarleton State currently compete as FCS independents.
According to NCAA bylaws, conferences must have a minimum of six football-playing members in order to qualify for the playoffs at the FCS level and bowl games at the FBS level. However, conference officials and university presidents at multiple institutions said the WAC is targeting another football-playing school for membership.
“We would like to add an institution that is similar in size, budget and sports sponsorship to the ones that we have in the conference right now,” WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd said. “Preferably, it would be one that would be on the southwest side of the conference because that’s where we’re short one in terms of the divisional setup, but that’s not necessarily written in concrete.”
“We have a little bit of time to vet schools that are interested,” he added. “We have a little time to figure out what works in our best interests as a conference and what’s the best fit from a number of different perspectives.”