Presidents of 16 universities are set to challenge the Big East's geographically diverse conference with a potential conference that would span five time zones, including Hawaii.
This past Sunday, independent of either conference, the 16 university presidents from the teams in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference met in Dallas and discussed what will now be an all-sport merger for the schools involved. Hawaii will be the only football-only school.
In October, university presidents from both conferences announced their intentions to form a new football-only conference in an effort to keep the Big East and other likeminded conferences from nabbing their programs.
"We think this is an exciting proposition and after this past Sunday, it took a very positive turn with everybody in the room showing a 100 percent commitment," Dr. Neal Smatresk, president of UNLV, told Yahoo! Sports. "I'm very confident this will be done soon and there's lots of paperwork and legal stuff and conference agreements still to be done."
The new conference, which has yet to be named, will be ready for the 2013-14 season with 16 teams, but that number could expand to 18 and as high as 24. The possible addition of eight more programs into the mix could open the door to teams from the other nonautomatic qualifying conferences, including the WAC, Mid-American Conference and the Sun Belt.
"They could come from just about anywhere," Tulane University president Dr. Scott Cowen said. "Schools that share the same values and visions we have for this conference. We will look at the possibility of adding more schools if they fit our criteria and share the same vision. We may add no schools, we may stay at 16, we might go as high as 24."
"I can tell you that as of today, a number of schools have already reached out to us about being a part of this association."
The football schedule would likely be played in an East-West format to minimize travel costs and keep local rivalries, something that current conference expansion and changes have ripped apart. Additionally, football would have a championship game and basketball a conference tournament. The conference also will strive for automatic qualification status in the BCS if such as thing still exists by the time the league is formed. Both Dr. Smatresk and Dr. Cowen said that the BCS will likely be "moot" in a couple years but clearly the "AQ" is a chip on the table.
"We've been having discussions about the AQ status and the BCS for three years," Smatresk said. "What I think most of us see coming down the road, and of course you never know, is the possibility of removing the AQ and having a playoff system. I'd be strongly in favor of the playoffs. We're having every discussion you can imagine we can have. If the AQ system persists, certainly we're looking to join that very exclusive club."
The move to a mega conference would certainly enhance the reputation of a number of programs that have perennially suffered from underexposure and less than ideal television timeslots. This combining of forces, at least on the football side, had Nielsen Ratings in mind. Contract negotiations with television partners is already underway.
"We will have 16 to who knows, maybe 24 teams in all five time zones including Hawaii so we span coast to coast with a real solid presence," Smatresk said. "On top of that, we will have a very large number of sets in America. We think having our teams on nationally from coast to coast is very strong. We frankly think that improves our market value."
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Kristian R. Dyer is on Twitter: Follow him @KristianRDyer