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UTPA to join Western Athletic Conference

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Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2012 8:37 pm

The University of Texas-Pan American will join the Western Athletic Conference, ending 14 years without membership in a conference with an automatic qualifier to the NCAA postseason.

The UT System Board of Regents unanimously approved UTPA’s bid to join the WAC in a special meeting Tuesday. UTPA’s move to the WAC will begin in the 2013-14 school year.

The school will officially announce its affiliation in a 3 p.m. news conference Wednesday. WAC interim commissioner Jeff Hurd is expected to attend.

Wednesday’s announcement should be a boon to an athletic department that has struggled with relevancy for years without true conference affiliation.

With the arrival of UTPA Athletic Director Chris King in 2009 and UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen the following year, there was a big push to find a legitimate home conference for the Broncs.

“We have basically been an independent for 15 years,” Nelsen said. “We are no longer an independent. It means the most for our (student-athletes). Our students will now have automatic qualifying (AQ) bids and known rivals. I think it is exciting for them.”

King was unavailable for comment.

UTPA has not competed in a conference with an AQ since it was booted from the Sun Belt after the 1997-98 school year for being plagued by NCAA infractions. With no affiliation with an AQ conference, it has been difficult for any of the team sports to advance past the regular season and compete for an NCAA championship.

In 2008, UTPA joined the Great West Conference, which turned out to be nothing more than a scheduling alliance. The Great West was formed in hopes of one day being granted an AQ to the postseason in all team sports.

In January, a Great West contingent that included Nelsen made a pitch to the NCAA that the Great West be granted an automatic bid. But in the following months, it became increasingly clear that the Great West would not be able to hold on to enough members.

For an AQ, a conference has to be labeled a multisport conference or have at least seven teams in men’s and women’s basketball and at least six in other sports.

UTPA had to look elsewhere.

Since joining the Great West, UTPA had always kept its options open. Earlier this year, the program submitted a bid to join the Southland Conference, the best geographical fit for UTPA, but was voted down by conference members. It is the second time the Southland bypassed UTPA.

In 2005, the Southland took Central Arkansas and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi instead of UTPA because the latter would not commit to having a football program. Corpus is still without football.

 Through the disappointment, UTPA remained determined.

“I’ve been very confident this was going to happen for quite some time,” Nelsen said.

And, finally, UTPA landed with a conference in flux.

“It is a league in transition because it will no longer have football,” Nelsen said. “It is a strong league with a lot of history and lots of tradition.”

The WAC, though, is not your grandfather’s conference. It has undergone many changes because of conference realignment and expansion.

When UTPA opens play in the WAC next year, it will join California State-Bakersfield, Chicago State University, Grand Canyon University (in Phoenix), New Mexico State University, Idaho University, Seattle University and Utah Valley University. New Mexico State has expressed its desire to leave the conference, and Idaho is leaving after the 2013-2014 school year.

But an automatic qualifier will go a long way for the program and the school.

“We are trying to build school spirit and athletics is part of it,” Nelsen said. “Being part of a conference is really an important part.”

The WAC officially invited UTPA in November and will charge an entrance fee of $450,000, which will be paid in three annual installments of $150,000 starting July 1, 2013. According to the meeting’s agenda, UTPA will pay the fee through a combination of “Athletic Department funds, institutional funds (reserves for auxiliary operations in the bookstore and food services) and revenues generated through private funding, such as corporate sponsorships, the Bronc Athletic Fund, ticket sales and other private revenue generation.”

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Peter Rasmussen is the sports editor for The Monitor. He can be reached at prasmussen@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4448.

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