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Eyes of MWC are upon Texas

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    Houston, located in the 10th-largest television market, might be a prime target for an expanded Mountain West Conference.

When the 16-member Western Athletic Conference parted company in 1998, several of the defectors could barely wait to separate themselves from the Texas schools.

The institutions that formed the Mountain West Conference wanted little to do with Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian and Texas-El Paso, though five years later they added TCU.

But now, as many of the same MWC schools seek to position the league for the future in the wake of TCU’s impending departure for the Big East, keeping a foot in Texas has become an important consideration.

The MWC Board of Directors is scheduled to meet this month for its most serious expansion talks since bringing Hawaii aboard. Re-establishing a Texas presence likely will be a key issue in determining whether the league remains at 10 members for 2012 or grows to 12.

Brigham Young, Utah and TCU will leave the conference this summer and Boise State will join it. Hawaii (football only), Fresno State and Nevada come aboard in the summer of 2012.

"Texas has been very positive (for) us," MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said.

A look at rosters of the six holdover members — Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State and Wyoming — illustrates why. All of them have notable Texas contingents.

"I think, anecdotally, we did some numbers and about 12 percent of our football (squads) were made up of Texans (initially)," Thompson said. "After about two to three years of TCU playing in the league, that jumped up to about 17 percent."

UH had four players with Texas hometowns on its 2010 roster, including receiver Rodney Bradley.

Thompson said, "At one time a couple of years ago, I think we had three starting quarterbacks from the state of Texas. So, Texas, as a recruiting area, is very important if we could keep a place there."

Dallas-Fort Worth (No. 1) and Houston (No. 5) are two of the biggest metropolitan areas for producing college football players. And Texas is the richest recruiting state, according to a study last year by the Tulsa World newspaper.

Moreover, Dallas-Fort Worth (fifth) and Houston (10th) are two of the largest television markets within what the MWC calls its "footprint."

As such, the University of Houston has been the most prominently speculated upon possibility for membership.

Thompson, however, said, "I don’t think there is anybody that has been targeted at this juncture, but certainly institutions in Texas are of interest."

Former WAC members Texas-El Paso and Dallas-based Southern Methodist, both currently in Conference USA, have been targets of speculation, as has the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. Utah State also has been on the radar since its would allow the MWC to keep a presence in the Beehive State once Utah (Pac-10) and BYU (independent in football) move on.

If Houston makes a move, another school would likely be asked to join it to round out the MWC lineup at 12. A 12-team conference would provide scheduling balance and entitle the MWC to hold a football championship game.

The Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and the Southeastern conferences already have lucrative championship games, and the Big Ten and Pac-10 have plans to add them (though the Big 12 could lose its with its membership dropping to 10 next season).

The WAC held conference championship games from 1996 to 1998, receiving a reported $1 million in TV rights fees for each game.

But while Thompson acknowledged, "there is value in a 12-team conference," he also said there can also be pitfalls if revenue and rivalries don’t rise with the membership numbers.

Several schools, including Nevada-Las Vegas and San Diego State, have publicly said they favor a 12-member league, but others have been less enthusiastic.

"There’s been no consensus." Thompson said. "That’s part of the conversation" that will take place this month and might not be settled until the spring.

Houston — or any C-USA team — would have to declare its intention by July 1 to begin play in the MWC in 2012. In addition, it would face a $500,000 withdrawal penalty, under C-USA rules.

Moreover, with Thompson and his C-USA counterpart, Britton Banowsky, talking about building a strategic alliance between the two conferences, membership changes between the two leagues would have to be handled gingerly.

The Western Athletic Conference, when it was courting Brigham Young during the summer, also put out feelers to UTEP. An element of the WAC’s plan would have involved a "trade" of Louisiana Tech for UTEP, a swap it had hoped to get C-USA’s blessing for, according to documents seen by the Star-Advertiser.

But UTEP officials said in August they had done nothing but listen to the WAC’s pitch and had not contemplated a move.

As for MWC expansion, Thompson said, "We’re talking with our TV partners to determine what all this (membership change) means. Certainly, losing three institutions and adding four is quite a different look to our television contract, so we’re in the process of determining what we want to look at. We know, in 2012, we’ll have nine comprehensive members and a football-only (UH). Is that a resting place? Is that where we stop or is it something we continue to build on?"


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