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Craig Thompson is expanding the MWC with one eye on the Minnesota AD job

Graham Watson
Dr. Saturday

Craig Thompson will not be operating an eight-team football conference come 2013.

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Craig Thompson (Susan Walsh/AP)

Eight, he told the Denver Post, is not a workable number.

"The Mountain West needs to change the numbers," Thompson said. "Staying with a status quo of eight teams for 2013 is not acceptable."

So it's good timing that Conference USA officials are meeting this week to discuss a possible merger with the Mountain West and the salvation of both conferences, which have been decimated because of expansion.

With Memphis' departure to the Big East, Conference USA has now lost four schools to the Big East as it tries to rebuild its roster and maintain relevance among the other BCS conferences. The Mountain West lost Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East and previously lost TCU to the Big 12, Utah to the Pac-12 and BYU to independence. In essence, the best of both conferences has moved on to greener pastures.

Merger talks aren't anything new. The two conferences have been talking about a partnership since mid-October of last year, but at that time, the Big East hadn't raided both sides. Now, the conferences could form a 16-team superconference with divisions and a championship game.

While Thompson is adamant that the Mountain West needs to change, he might not be around to see it. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Thursday that Thompson said he would be "open" to discussions about becoming the athletic director at Minnesota. Joel Maturi is retiring as AD on June 30.

"But there would be a million questions to learn more about the position," he said. "Is there a budget deficit? Is fundraising the issue? Is the focus on rebuilding the football program? Are there academic concerns? Is there a support system to graduate student-athletes? There would be a lot more to know about the needs and wants of the athletic department before you can even think about taking the next step."

As the paper notes, Thompson not only graduated from Minnesota in 1978, he still has multiple ties to the area and the university.

His brother graduated from the dental school. His brother-in-law and two nephews also received their degrees at Minnesota. Another nephew is there now. So the Redwood Falls, Minn., native, has stayed close to the Gophers.

Thompson said getting the football program back to a championship level will be a "big step," considering the Gophers haven't won a Big Ten title or gone to the Rose Bowl since the 1960s.

"Iowa and Wisconsin stepped it up a notch and surpassed Gophers football, but there really doesn't have to be a reason for that," he said. "Minneapolis-St. Paul is a Fortune 500 town. It's a tremendous community. There's after-graduation job prospects. It's a great place to live, work and go to school. Now with the on-campus stadium, that can be sort of an equalizer."

Thompson has been the Mountain West commissioner since the league was formed in 1999. Most of the teams that made the Mountain West successful came over from the old WAC conference, which was a 16-team league that struggled to keep everyone happy. The Mountain West pounced and teams such as Utah, BYU and TCU from Conference USA, put the Mountain West on the map and made it the best conference among the nonautomatic qualifiers. But those teams got too big, sought new conferences and despite Thompson's attempt to attract the best non-BCS teams to the Mountain West, the allure of a guaranteed potential spot in a BCS game every year was too much to overcome.

So, who could blame Thompson for looking around? Especially since there can't be two commissioners of whatever conference the Mountain West and Conference USA ultimately form.

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Graham Watson is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow her @Yahoo_Graham

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