It’s officially official.
After weeks of rumors, Southern Utah University will join the Western Athletic Conference on July 1, 2022. The announcement was made at a news conference at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, on Thursday morning.
“In 2012, the Big Sky was the very best conference for us, and it’s still a really great conference,” SUU President Scott L Wyatt said. “But in 2021-22, the WAC is the best conference for us, and I’m grateful that everyone spent so much time carefully looking at these decisions.”
The Thunderbirds join Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin from the Southland Conference as new members of the WAC in an effort to reinstitute FCS football competition in the conference.
The remainder of the current athletic season and the 2021-22 season will be played in the Big Sky Conference before SUU completes the transition ahead of the 2022-23 season.
President Wyatt told reporters via Zoom that invitations for SUU to join the WAC were extended on several previous occasions, but the one hang-up that kept him from considering the move before was the fact the WAC didn’t support football.
When news came that the schools in Texas wanted to bring back football in the WAC and wanted SUU to be a part of the movement, the offer was too good to pass up.
“I’ve learned in my experience that the door of opportunity knocks usually when you least expect it,” SUU Director of Athletics Debbie Corum said. “I’ve had some jokes with some of my colleagues like, ‘You didn’t have anything else to do? You were trying to run an athletic department in a pandemic, and you decide to go change conferences?’… But we rarely get to choose when opportunity is going to come to us.”
Corum said that SUU is “very like-minded” with the other institutions in the conference because many of them are “in growth situations” and are interested in raising the level of their athletic competitions.
Every sport outside of football and men’s and women’s basketball will join a 13-team conference split into two divisions beginning in 2022. Specifications about league makeup for the other three sports have not been made at this time.
The T-Birds will compete alongside current members of the WAC in Dixie State University, New Mexico State University, Grand Canyon University, California Baptist University, Seattle University and Utah Valley University in the West Division. The new additions from Texas will join standing members Tarleton State University and The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to form the Southwest Division.
“We’re not joining the WAC because it might cost us less. That’s not the basis for the decision…” Wyatt said. “It is also true that once we move into the WAC and divisional play, our travel expenses will go down, and we’ll be able to use that money to increase the competitiveness of our students and more fully support our athletes.”
Wyatt said he was first contacted about a potential move six months ago, and he worked closely with the presidents of the other universities in Texas to get the ball rolling.
From there, Corum began to consider how changing conferences would impact each of the 12 sports SUU sponsors.
“With everything that we looked at, all the analysis we did… we just really feel that this is a very good move for both the school and the athletic department,” Corum said. “We think we’re joining a really visionary group of people.”
Transitioning to the WAC provides a “step-up in competition,” Wyatt said. It also allows for SUU to rekindle its longstanding rivalry with Dixie State and continue a budding one with Utah Valley as members of the same conference.
Regularly facing in-state competition was a priority for Wyatt and Corum. However, any future battles with in-state foe Weber State University will have to take place in the preseason.
“If you were to ask all of the schools in the Big Sky who their number one rival is, none of them would say Southern Utah University,” Wyatt said. “But moving into the WAC, we think Utah Valley and Dixie will see us that way.”
Southern Utah will be joining the WAC after being a member of the Big Sky Conference since 2012. During their tenure in the Big Sky, the Thunderbirds claimed seven team conference titles, including a football championship in 2015 and 2017, and several Big Sky individual championships.
“We’ve been a very successful member of the Big Sky,” Corum said. “I think that if we weren’t as successful as we’ve been, the Texas schools wouldn’t have been interested in contacting President Wyatt. The fact that we were the school sought after by these successful schools means the world to me as far as what we’ve built here.”
SUU football coach Demario Warren, who was coaching at SUU before it joined the Big Sky, expressed gratitude for the success his team had in the conference and said scheduling Big Sky opponents will be a priority for the future.
“I think if you would have asked our football program in 2012 that we’d win two out of eight championships, I don’t think anybody would have bet on that,” Warren said. “[The Big Sky] is a great conference. It was fun to be a part of, but it’s also exciting to go to another challenge and see what we can do in another area of the country.”
Dixie State and Tarleton State currently compete as independents at the FCS level while New Mexico, who operates independently in the FBS, will drop down with the rest of the conference. While the universities in Texas will join the WAC as football members as soon as 2021, the conference will not be complete until SUU joins in 2022.
President Wyatt said the conference has instructed its members to begin considering what it would take to make the jump to the FBS level, and that the conference will re-examine its status at the FCS level in 2022.
“I cannot overstate my level of excitement in making this expansion announcement,” said WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd. “The opportunity to bring five quality institutions into the conference, to bring football back under the WAC umbrella and at the same time significantly strengthen basketball and other conference sports is one that is easy to embrace.”
SUU men’s basketball coach Todd Simon said that joining the WAC will allow SUU to garner more visibility on a larger stage.
“There’s some brand recognition historically with the WAC,” Simon said. “Programs like Stephen F. Austin, New Mexico State and Grand Canyon are becoming very visible in the college basketball landscape, so that’s only going to help as we recruit.”
The Thunderbird gymnastics program will remain a member of the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference, as the WAC no longer sponsors women’s gymnastics. Ironically, the Thunderbirds already own a WAC Championship thanks to the 2010 Flippin’ Birds, who used to be affiliate members of the league.
Corum said “the door is open for a future athletic director and president” to add new programs, including baseball, to the athletic teams SUU already sponsors. For now, she’ll work with President Wyatt to improve what they already have.
“We don’t have the crystal ball to know what the future brings, but if we didn’t think this was a really great move, we wouldn’t be making it,” Corum said. “When opportunity knocks, you either decide, ‘Hey, I’m too busy with other things’ or ‘We’re in a financial situation right now, I’m not going to open the door,’ or you have the courage to open the door. I’m glad I work with a president who had the courage to open the door.”
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by Hayden Coombs