Karl Benson has learned his lesson about expansion several times over.
In 1999, he watched his 16-team WAC break apart as the newly formed Mountain West Conference poached several WAC teams to create their new league. In 2010, the Mountain West struck again, taking Boise State and ultimately Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii to cripple the WAC and make it a shell of the conference it once was.
So when Benson left the WAC after 18 years to start a new tenure as the head of the Sun Belt, Benson knew the way to preserve the nation's lowest FBS league was to be proactive.
According to an investigation by the Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, Benson proposed a four-conference merger and even tried to poach some teams from Conference USA in an effort to make the Sun Belt at the very least a minor player in the new world of college football that will begin in 2014. The Sun Belt targeted as many as 21 schools for expansion — not all football schools — and tried to persuade C-USA members Southern Miss, UAB, East Carolina and Marshall to join the Belt.
According to the Daily News Journal, which obtained emails sent from Benson to Middle Tennessee State, Benson started pitching his expansion plan in April.
On April 1, Benson emailed a powerpoint presentation to Sun Belt presidents/chancellors and athletic directors, laying out the league's various realignment options.
One slide listed 21 schools to be considered as "possible additions/replacements" — including Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Texas State, Utah State, UT-San Antonio, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Liberty, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Belmont, College of Charleston, Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, St. Louis and Texas-Arlington.
"That was just to demonstrate that the Sun Belt had many options," Benson said. "We needed to think out of the box, but it was just an exercise in showing that the Sun Belt is in a good spot."
The same presentation included several maps of potential conference mergers — one of which was titled "Makes Too Much Sense" and proposed a 33-school superconference combining the Sun Belt, C-USA, WAC and Mountain West Conference.
"I had very quiet inquiries with (Mountain West commissioner) Craig Thompson and (C-USA commissioner) Britton Banowsky to see if, 'Hey, would you be interested?'" Benson said. "But that was dismissed quickly. No interest."
In the end, the Sun Belt added Georgia State, Texas State and Texas-Arlington for the 2013 season while Sun Belt members Florida International and North Texas went to Conference USA along with Louisiana Tech, UT-San Antonio, Charlotte and Old Dominion. San Jose State and Utah State left the WAC for the Mountain West and the WAC was left with just two football schools — Idaho and New Mexico — and ultimately will end up folding.
Even though Benson's idea didn't pan out, you gotta give him credit for trying.
"I knew how tenuous the WAC was and I could see what might happen," Benson said. "The Sun Belt had options, and that's what led me to have interest in the Sun Belt rather than trying to save the WAC one more time.
"I saw a real bright future for the Sun Belt, and I still do."
Combining four of the nation's lowest leagues — Sun Belt, Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC — in the name of self-preservation wasn't a bad idea; heck, the Mountain West and Conference USA were talking about combining their forces to become a better, more attractive league.
As the power conferences started poaching the best teams from the nonautomatic qualifying leagues, it looked as though those lower leagues would get left out of the potential playoff set the begin in 2014. While combining their forces might not have rectified that, they might have been able to set up some sort of bowl agreement where their top team played the Big East or ACC's top team in an effort to keep those lower conferences relevant. As it stands, all of the conferences outside of the Big Six are very much on the outside looking in and it's unclear how they'll fit into the new version of college football.
Benson said he has no regrets about his failed attempts to put the Sun Belt in a better position and in some ways, the Sun Belt is in a better spot than it was before. It's still considered the lowest of the nonautomatic qualifying conferences (for as long as they're still called that), but with Benson's leadership, experience and foresight, who knows what the Sun Belt might become in the future.