What to make of Arkansas State in this Big XII expansion thing

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Wolves Up, Big XII

Once, I was asked the question, How far away is Arkansas State from joining a Power Conference?

“We’re about ten years away,” I said.

“From joining a Power Five conference?”

“No,” I clarified. “From even being in the discussion.”


I was only off by a decade. Last Friday morning, news broke that a whopping 17 college athletic programs were pitching the Big XII for entry, with 14 of the programs being known. That left three mystery programs to puz and ponder. Who could they be? Wouldn’t it be funny if Arkansas State threw their dog collar into the ring?

Ha ha! But I’m the guy who said we were ten years away from even having a discussion. Why? As many gains as Arkansas State has made over the last ten years, the university is still growing. The College of Osteopathic Medicine is admitting its first class in the fall. A-State: Mexico is still a year away from admitting students. Additionally, the North Endzone Stadium Project has yet to be fully funded, the baseball program needs an overhaul, and the men’s basketball team is being rebuilt under new head coach Grant McCasland.

Arkansas State still had work to do. Then ESPN’s Brett McMurphy dropped the atom bomb Friday afternoon. Seventeen (and ultimately eighteen) programs had made their pitch to the Big XII. And one of those programs was Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference. 

What do we make of this? This can’t be just a publicity stunt. No way system president Chuck Welch and athletic director Terry Mohajir entered into the Big XII fray capriciously. Hey, let’s just focus on maintaining some stability in the Sun Belt for once! In fact, Mohajir seemed to hint earlier in the week that Red Wolves weren’t an ideal Big XII candidate.

“There’s a fine line between being in the conversation and trying to put yourself in the conversation and embarrassing yourself.”  – Terry Mohajir, A-State AD

When I first read that quote, I thought Mohajir was taking a swipe at East Carolina, who has made their interest in the Big XII shamelessly known to the Big XII. Indeed, the Pirates seem to be going overboard on the campaigning, making goo-goo eyes with the Big XII while its own conference, The American, stands red faced at the punch bowl. Mohajir appeared to be saying that pandering was beneath Arkansas State.

So how do we explain the Red Wolves sudden inclusion into the Expansion Conversation? We can interpret it in one of three ways:

1. Terry Mohajir and Arkansas State are dead serious about joining the Big XII.

Not everyone sees the brilliance of Arkansas State pitching for Big XII expansion. But then again, “know your role” is not an A-State maxim. “Why not us?” is, and it’s often spoken by the A-State athletic department when discussing the Cotton Bowl (a spot awarded to the top G5 qualifier). In truth, the football program looks impressively strong in 2016, and the Red Wolves are feeling it.

So why not the Red Wolves for the Big XII? Unlike most candidates, Arkansas State fits neatly in the Big XII footprint without threatening established conference recruiting territories. The campus is growing, and the administration has demonstrated a supernaturally strong commitment to athletics.

Furthermore, Arkansas State competes well in a variety of athletics disciplines, including track & field, volleyball, basketball and baseball. The academic standards aren’t world class, but the medical school will bolster its credentials. The campus in Mexico is also a unique situation. Imagine the possibilities of curating a fan base south of the border – a territory the Big XII could exclusively claim.

So yeah. Why not Arkansas State?

2. Arkansas State is playing a masterful game of conference chess.

It is entirely possible that the pitch made to the Big XII is a pawn to be sacrificed to an eventual bid to another G5 conference, presumably the American (though the possibility of the Mountain West or even the MAC cannot be outright dismissed).

Let’s not kid ourselves; there are three leading contenders for expansion – BYU, Cincinnati and Houston. The rest make a case of varying validity, but much of this is strategic posturing for boosters and fans. But Terry Mohajir is likely looking beyond selling season tickets and impressing deep pockets.

By throwing its hat into the Big XII circus, Arkansas State is signaling a commitment to growth and continued bad assery. Should Cincinnati and Houston receive golden tickets, that leaves a valuable vacuum for programs seeking new conference affiliations. Those best poised to make that move will be the programs already publicly vetted by Big XII scrutiny.

3. Arkansas State is saving face for the Sun Belt.

A couple weeks ago, Mike Aresco, Commissioner of the American Conference, made a brash and bold statement that created some waves among the Forgotten Five community:

Big 12 expansion, if it happens, and it appears probable, will again change the landscape of collegiate athletics and may well have an impact on our conference. As presently constituted, The American is a Power 6 conference and has earned that designation. We have been incredibly competitive, and the fact that virtually all of our schools are the main focus of realignment speaks to our strength, speaks volumes about us.

Like it or not, Aresco makes a good point. The majority of the candidates discussed for Big XII expansion hail from the American: Houston, Cincinnati, East Carolina, SMU, Memphis, USF, UCF, Temple, Tulane and UConn. What Aresco manages to do is judo-flip a drainage problem into a legitimate bragging point.

Meanwhile, two other G5 conferences (along with indy BYU) have their own candidates: NIU from the MAC and San Diego State, Air Force, New Mexico, Colorado and Boise State from the Mountain West.

That leaves CUSA and the Sun Belt going stag to the prom. Is it possible that crafty Karl Benson, commissioner of the SBC, nudged Arkansas State into submitting a bid? Such Dumas-like machinations seems out of character for Benson, but consider how many programs CUSA has poached from Benson’s Belt. Does not Arkansas State’s candidacy thumb its nose a bit at CUSA? 

Conclusion

My gut tells me that elements of all three scenarios ring true. Of course Mohajir is serious about A-State to the Big XII. Nobody believes in Arkansas State more than T-Mo. He’s also a keen manipulator, knowing that the noise A-State makes with the Big XII could prove useful when shifting to another conference. And yes, I think Arkansas State’s entry into the Expansion fray is good PR for the Sun Belt, though I have trouble imagining Benson pulling those strings.

Update

I spoke incoherently on this topic as a guest on A-State Nation. Take a listen.

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