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Opportunity may come knocking for Cal Poly football
If Western Athletic Conference realigns, Cal Poly could have chance to move to FBS
With speculation pointing toward a shift in college conference alignment — and news expected to come as early as Monday — Cal Poly could be facing its best, and perhaps only, chance of moving to the highest level of college football this summer.
There are questions whether the university could afford to make the jump from the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, both monetarily and competitively.
At the very least, making the commitment to move would eventually require completion of a multi-million dollar stadium expansion and 22 additional football scholarships, all while the state struggles to crawl out of a crippling economic recession.
But if the school cannot capitalize on the trickle-down effect of what could be a monumental shift — both the Big Ten and the Pac-10 are rumored to be seeking the formation of super conferences — there’s no telling how long Cal Poly could be on the outside looking in, stuck in a football subdivision with a limited number of West Coast opponents.
“The window’s going to open; the window’s going to close,” Cal Poly head football coach Tim Walsh said. “You better be ready to answer the question.
“We better be ready to say ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’ We need to be ready to make a decision. I think it’s what we need to do for football.”
Though Cal Poly is nowhere near the front of the line of dominoes that could fall in many different directions all over the country, it’s foreseeable that the Mustangs, along with Great West Football Conference rival UC Davis, could end up with an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference, which is home to CSU programs in Fresno and San Jose.
Recent reports speculate that when conference meetings start this week, current WAC member Boise State will receive an invitation to join the Mountain West Conference, a league of nine schools initially formed when it split from the WAC in 1999.
Louisiana Tech, by far the eastern-most school in the WAC, has also been rumored to depart since it was left on an island when Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa bolted for Conference USA in 2005.
For the past five years, the WAC has been enjoying its longest stint of membership stability since 1992, but when it did add teams in the past, they’ve mostly shared one big similarity with Cal Poly.
Eight of the nine current WAC teams each at one time played football in the Big West Conference, which the Mustangs joined in 1996.
Gearing up for WAC meetings starting this week, conference commissioner Karl Benson was unavailable for comment but has identified a list of potential invitees within the past month, including: Cal Poly, Montana, Portland State, Sacramento State, Texas State and UC Davis.
An Idaho Statesman report this past week stated Boise State would be able to accept an invite to the Mountain West on the spot since the Broncos got clearance from the Idaho State Board of Education to do just that when they first hoped to get the call in 2003.
The Mustangs, on the other hand, would need some time to weigh their options, Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone said. Though she may head the athletic department, in the end, the decision wouldn’t rest with her office. More likely, it would come from the CSU chancellor and Cal Poly president, an office in the midst of some unrest. Warren Baker announced his retirement to follow the current academic year, but the university announced last week that after hosting three finalists, the search for a new president would be reopened.
“Number one, we would need an invitation, which we don’t have,” Cone said. “Then, it’s a period of evaluation, and you don’t know, until details of the invitations are extended, whether we would choose to act. Typically those are types of decisions that the university would go through.”
The earliest Cal Poly could start a mandatory two-year transition into the FBS would be in 2011, when an NCAA moratorium on subdivision change is scheduled to expire. During the two transitional seasons, the Mustangs would not be eligible for the postseason in either subdivision and could not be part of a conference.
With July 1 being a looming deadline for the 2011 intentions of many, the time to mull over any offers could be limited.
For Walsh, who is preparing to begin his second season at the helm with Cal Poly, it’s clear something has to happen soon. He fears the five-team Great West Football Conference might not be around in the near future. Even if it is, the travel won’t be getting any easier with trips to mostly out-of-the-way destinations.
Without a major airport, San Luis Obispo is not an easy place to get in and out of, and neither are three of the other members’ cities — Grand Forks, N.D., Vermillion, S.D., and Cedar City, Utah.
“We have to take advantage of whatever opportunity is created for us, and I think the opportunity to be in the WAC is a legitimate one,” Walsh said. “I think it’s the right fit. It’s good for us. It puts us in the western region of the United States, which is nice, and it fits us with some good natural rivalries.”
Cal Poly football alumni have also been pining for an upgrade.
A booster group led by former players made that their overriding theme at a barbecue following the Mustangs’ spring game in April.
And contacted by The Tribune after his retirement from broadcasting last summer, former Cal Poly player and NFL Hall of Famer John Madden expressed a desire to see the Mustangs back playing old rivals like Fresno State and San Jose State.
As Cone grapples with scheduling home games in a subdivision where 90 percent of the schools are located east of the Rocky Mountains, many of the visitors to Alex G. Spanos Stadium have been relative unknowns.
“With any potential athletic alignment, one of our big goals with football is let’s play people that excite our students,” Cone said, “who are more like us, who our alumni have heard of.
“If you want to make a change in conferences, whether it’s to the WAC or somewhere else, you have to make sure you’re putting your university in a good position to have success, and you want your alumni to be proud about what we’re doing.”
Walsh said he’s receiving questions from recruits on the future of Cal Poly football and its conference alignment. They ask about the WAC, the FBS and where the Mustangs might be in the four of five years they’d be at the school.
For now, those are questions Walsh can’t answer.
The answers may come soon, and they likely won’t be easily arrived at. But if they’re the answers Walsh is hoping for, one thing is for sure: Solidarity must be achieved.
“If we do it, our athletic department, our community, our university needs to say, ‘We’re in,’ ” Walsh said. “Not just football, a lot of people in the community need to realize, ‘OK, this is what we need to do.’ ”
By Joshua D. Scroggin
San Luis Obispo Tribune