At 1 p.m. Thursday, the Sun Belt Conference will have a new commissioner and the reeling Western Athletic Conference (WAC) will lose one.
The Associated Press, USA Today and several other news outlets reported Wednesday afternoon and evening that WAC commissioner Karl Benson will be announced as Sun Belt commissioner in the Thursday afternoon teleconference. He replaces Wright Waters, who will retire as Sun Belt commissioner effective no later than June 30.
The Sun Belt issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that it would have an announcement on the future on the league on Thursday, without any other details.
The WAC may not have a future, with the departure of the 60-year-old Benson another nail in the coffin of a league that has lost Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii from its membership over the past 18 months. Boise is in the Mountain West this year and the other three will leave the WAC at the end of this academic year.
The WAC currently has Louisiana Tech, Utah State, New Mexico State, Idaho and San Jose State as members, and has Texas State and Texas-San Antonio and non-football members Denver and Seattle joining next year. Boise State rejoins the WAC – if it still exists – in all sports except football when it joins the Big East in 2013.
But even that WAC alignment, one without several of its cornerstone schools, is in danger. The recently-announced consolidation of the Mountain West and Conference USA could mean more poaching of WAC members. Benson may be looking for a more stable environment. The current 16 schools in the MWC and C-USA memberships reportedly want to form a coast-to-coast league that will include from 18 to 24 members. Tech and Utah State have been mentioned as possibilities for that addition.
The Sun Belt currently includes nine football schools – UL Lafayette, UL Monroe, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, North Texas and Western Kentucky – and non-football-playing Arkansas-Little Rock and South Alabama – although South Alabama will add football in 2013.
Waters is the man responsible for starting and upgrading football in the Sun Belt while he was commissioner, and was also instrumental in the founding of the R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl which is played each December in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The New Orleans Bowl has been affiliated with the Sun Belt since its inception.
The Sun Belt has also been able to avoid the cherry-picking that has plagued other leagues, and has become more competitive in football over the past several years. Even though the Belt went 1-2 in its three bowl games this year, the Sun Belt boasts a 7-7 bowl record since 2005 – a better mark than the ACC, the Big Ten, Conference USA and the WAC.
Benson has been WAC commissioner since 1994, after serving four years as commissioner of the Mid-American, and had been part of several realignments in that league. Shortly after he became the WAC boss, the league expanded to 16 schools – the country's first "super-sized conference" – before eight schools broke off in 1999 and formed the Mountain West.
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