After nearly 30 years with the conference, and after more than one year with the interim tag, Jeff Hurd is finally the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference.
When he started, the league offered football and saw BYU’s Ty Detmer win the Heisman Trophy in 1991. It had the likes of Utah, UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State. Fast forward to 2013, and football is gone. All those teams are long gone.
There are now nine institutions, including six new faces, all of which will officially join July 1. One of those schools is UTPA.
“The WAC is basically reinventing itself,” said Hurd, who was named commissioner last week, from his office in Englewood, Colo. “That presents some challenges, there’s no doubt about that.”
Those include branding and defining the conference, coming up with a revenue stream, solidifying the current membership and planning for the future.
The WAC’s nine teams — UTPA, CSU Bakersfield, Chicago State, Utah Valley, UMKC, Grand Canyon, Seattle, Idaho and New Mexico State — will only be together for this season. Idaho (which still plays football) is gone after 2013-14. NMSU (which also still plays football) doesn’t figure to hang around forever.
However, not too long ago, it was a distinct possibility that the WAC wouldn’t even last. The fact that it now has seven stable teams, and the fact that rumors persist that others will join over the next year, is a credit to Hurd. No, the conference isn’t what it used to be. But for its current state, it’s certainly a welcome home for the previously homeless UTPA.
“I think he’s a great fit for the WAC,” UTPA athletic director Chris King said. “He’s one of the folks I dealt with in conference realignment that I felt were transparent and honest at all times. I’ve got a (great) deal of respect for him and I know a lot of the presidents and athletic directors do.”
As the new WAC leaders continue to convene, the group will figure out exactly where they want the conference to go. Without football, a large chuck of the revenue stream is gone. With the TV contract up June 30, the conference becomes less-desirable without the country’s most popular sport.
So, Hurd has many things to figure out. He wants to start a digital network, he still wants to have national exposure, he wants to see if attendance and interest is strong enough to make Las Vegas a viable long-term site for the basketball tournaments, he wants to set scheduling parameters to get the conference away from being a one-bid league, he’s adding men’s soccer and men’s swimming to the docket.
“We need to get started, we need to get started with our new membership,” Hurd said. “We need to find out what our strengths are, we need to find out what our weaknesses are. That’s part of our major function, to provide quality opportunities, championship opportunities for our student athletes.”
The automatic qualification for the NCAA tournament that the WAC possesses, is of course, the key reason why UTPA is joining it. The Broncs haven’t had that luxury since 1998, and now, for the first time since then, the program is a legitimate part of the amateur athletics scene.
Getting UTPA to that point is what King wanted to do when he took the job in 2009.
“The University of Texas-Pan American awfully excited to be a member of the conference,” King said. “I think this is going to be a long term partnership for us.”
The WAC certainly hopes that’s the case. With realignment in college sports not close to over, stability isn’t exactly common in any conference. The WAC, though, is part of that.
It hopes to get to 12 teams, but Hurd doesn’t expect that to happen for at least five or six years, if that. But it does have UTPA, and with its merger with UT-Brownsville and the addition of the medical school, the WAC is getting a stronger and more viable UTPA than it initially signed on for last December.
With that, Hurd figures UTPA, and the Rio Grande Valley, will play a part in the re-shaping of this conference.
“I think UTPA, much like our other new member, can play a significant, integral role in the growth of the league,” Hurd said. “I think UTPA plays a significant role, I fully except that we’re going to be able to take advantage of that as we move on.”