The State of the Western Athletic Conference

Recently, Augustana University in South Dakota applied for membership into the Summit League, but the odds look to be against them. They’ve first got to wait and see whether the NCAA allows Division III St. Thomas to transition directly to Division I and a Summit League berth a year from now.

Even if that doesn’t go through, Augustana has an enrollment of only a little over 2,100 which would be comfortably the smallest in the conference. It’s honestly a hard sell if not for their old rivalries with the other Dakota schools.

That begs whether or not the Vikings would be interested in pursuing their Division I membership in the WAC. Between this news and the current state of affairs in Chicago, it’s time we took a look at where the Western Athletic conference is currently.

Membership Transition and Chicago State’s Swan Song

The WAC currently has nine members, and that will continue into the coming year with a transition in the members that comprise those nine.

Dixie State and Tarleton State will move up from Division II and join the conference. They will effectively replace Cal-State Bakersfield and UMKC, who are leaving for the Big West Conference and the Summit League, respectively.

No conference wants to have an odd number of teams, but when you are having to court upwardly mobile Division II teams just to keep your head above water your options are limited.

That number could also drop to eight, as the Chicago State athletic department continues to creep off the cliff they’ve been living on for the better part of a decade. As we talked about before, the Cougars are a program that is seriously (and with good reason) evaluating whether they should even remain at the Division I level, let alone continue as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.

This would bring the conference back down to an even eight members and remove a severe geographic outlier to improve everyone’s travel budget, but it also could open the door to another possibility

Augustana’s Potential Membership and the Return of FBS Football

Augustana would be a bit of a geographical outlier, but it wouldn’t be as bad as Chicago State’s situation as they would have a northern travel partner in Seattle. It could also bring the WAC closer to reviving football, as the Vikings would be the fourth football-playing program in the conference.

NCAA Bylaws stipulate that a school can reclassify to FBS by joining a former FBS conference. Idaho’s consultant report from 2016 confirms the WAC fits this criterion. Those bylaws also state that if and when the WAC contains eight football-playing members, it could reclassify as an FBS conference.

It is possible that the WAC is trying to rebuild its football status by adding schools like Dixie State and Tarleton State. These schools are far from FBS-ready, but there are the beginnings of a resurgence here.

New Mexico State, Dixie State and Tarleton State all have football programs. Utah Valley has at least had momentum towards one, and is a geographical rival for Dixie State.

Grand Canyon has a rabid fanbase, a pseudo-rivalry with NMSU, and money to burn as a for-profit school that is somewhat of a Liberty West (minus the Falwell Problems).

UT-Rio Grande Valley has kicked the tires on football and could be paired with Tarleton State, or you could talk to literally any of the Texas schools in the Southland conference, several of whom have either enrollment or an endowment that would make the rest of the WAC blush.

That gets you to six existing members with football programs if you can convince GCU, UVU, and UTRGV. If not, bringing Augustana on board gets you to four, and you might consider a Southland pillage that creates a conference whose size varies by sport.

Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, Lamar, and Central Arkansas could all make sense. They all have enrollments and/or endowments that would be comfortably in line with the rest of the WAC, as well as recent histories of football and basketball success to go with past FBS experience and/or future FBS aspirations.

This is obviously a long shot even after adding the likes of Dixie and Tarleton, but the conference has had worse ideas and likely needs to remain in pursuit of FBS status in order to successfully achieve long-term retention of New Mexico State, now comfortably their most high-profile program.

The WAC and Augustana would be a mutually beneficial relationship that could be a springboard back towards FBS status and FBS revenue for all members involved. If the Summit League shuts the door on the Vikings, the WAC should open theirs. After all, they’re in no position to refuse.

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