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UP & ROLLING

AGGIES' ENTRANCE IN THE MWC 'ABSOLUTELY CHANGES OUR TRAJECTORY'

 

 

"USU IS IN GREAT HANDS RIGHT NOW. THIS IS OUR GOLDEN AGE, NOT ONLY FOR ATHLETICS BUT FOR THE UNIVERSITY AS A WHOLE. THAT DOESN'T MEAN WE'VE PEAKED. I THINK OUR GREATEST YEARS ARE AHEAD OF US.
—Jim Laub

To appreciate the significance of Utah State University’s new membership in the Mountain West Athletic Conference is to understand the five decades of Aggie sports history preceding it.

When several universities formed the Western Athletic Conference in 1962 and excluded Utah State, it sent the Aggies on an odyssey that included 18 years of NCAA independence and memberships in the PCAA/Big West and Sun Belt Conferences before finally joining the WAC in 2005. 

Equally important to the story is the school’s unwavering leadership at a time in 2010 when the WAC began to weaken, leadership that insisted Utah State set its sights on stability in its conference affiliation.

Intercollegiate alliances like these always benefit more than just departments of athletics and USU President Stan Albrecht and Vice President and Director of Athletics Scott Barnes realized that as they carried out their plan to shepherd Utah State to higher ground.

We all know the end result: USU officially joined the 15-year old Mountain West July 1 of this year.

But a look back at the work Albrecht and Barnes did during a critical 21-month period from August, 2010 to May, 2012, when USU accepted the official MWC invitation, explains how the Aggies arrived in the new conference ready to make their mark.

Pres. Albrecht describes some of it as  “serendipity,” issues out of his control.

But there is much more to the story.

The changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics was apparent by the middle of 2010 as the Aggies were preparing for their sixth season of competition in the Western Athletic Conference.

Albrecht was chair of the WAC Presidents Council at a time when Boise State announced plans to leave the WAC for the Mountain West. He and the council knew to keep their conference strong would require a proactive approach as schools all over the country were jumping from one league to another.

Brigham Young University’s decision during that time to become independent in football meant it needed a conference affiliation for its other sports.

Under Albrecht’s leadership the WAC presidents invited BYU to bring those sports into the Western Athletic Conference and administrators in Provo were open to the invitation but sought assurances there would be no more defections to further weaken the WAC.

An agreement was forged to strengthen the alliance among the remaining schools but when Fresno State and Nevada left to join Boise State, the WAC’s future as a football-playing conference was in jeopardy.

That is when Albrecht and Barnes stepped back and examined not only the future of the WAC but of their aspirations for USU athletics.

To keep the league viable WAC leaders focused on a search for other football-playing institutions. The USU administration was fully invested in that effort.

At the same time Albrecht and Barnes re-examined their five-year football excellence plan and judged it was on target as a result of Coach Gary Andersen’s hiring in 2009. Also, they prepared to advance the Aggies into an unknown future confident of the nation’s respect for Stew Morrill’s basketball success.

With a focus on needed facilities improvements, they took the conversation to important supporters of the program.

“Jim Laub (CEO, Cache Valley Electric) was absolutely key to this,” said Albrecht, “with his willingness again to invest in USU athletics.”

It was Laub’s continuing generosity that led to the building of the 69,000-square foot athletics and academics complex in Romney Stadium’s north end zone .

It bears Jim and Carol Laub’s name and is the centerpiece of USU’s commitment to facilities growth. It changed the Aggie landscape.

Albrecht knew, though, as important as Laub was he couldn’t carry the Aggies on his back alone; others would have to be willing to help.

“That has happened big time and it’s been absolutely essential to where we are,” said Albrecht.

Utah State dealt successfully with questions of campus facilities and concerns about access to what some regarded as the school’s remote northern Utah location.

Albrecht and Barnes were convinced if they could persuade those of influence in the Mountain West to visit the USU campus, the school would sell itself.

They were right.

“We needed to have them come and look and hopefully get beyond past perceptions that may have been holding us back. We wanted them to see the reality of Utah State University today,” said Albrecht.

The core qualities of the university came into focus for MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson on his first visit to Logan. Albrecht said the Mountain West’s decision-makers realized how well USU fit into the conference.

Some of the serendipity, Albrecht mentioned, came into play when San Diego State and Boise State announced plans to leave the Mountain West for the Big East Conference. Thus, the MWC was again considering new members.

By then, the Aggies had positioned themselves with new facilities, plus commitments to construct a strength training center and a basketball practice venue with donated funds, in addition to a campaign of education that answered the prevailing questions about USU.

Utah State was ready.

“At the end of the day, after they visited Logan, the academic quality of our institution shone forth,” said Albrecht. “They became familiar with how forward-looking this institution is.

“Our entire campus community can take pride in understanding the role it played in our invitation to join the Mountain West,” said Albrecht.

The Aggies also scored points as the Mountain West sought to create a geographically based conference, a logical approach that has been lost in other expansion stories around the country.

For example, the San Jose trip was the Aggies’ nearest league football road game last fall; it will be the longest conference trip the team will make this season.

“Dr. Albrecht and Scott Barnes have been phenomenal through this process,” said Commissioner Thompson. “Certainly they can’t control things like market size and wins and losses. But their vision, plus the new facilities and the commitment to athletics and the successes, particularly in the two most visible sports of football and men’s basketball, perhaps set them above the rest.

“The campus in Logan feels and looks like a number of our other places — Wyoming and Colorado State, another land-grant university, for example — and it did not hurt that their academics go right to the top of our league. It is just a great fit,” Thompson said.

Barnes is convinced the Mountain West Conference got it right with expansion this time.

“We’re now aligned with like institutions and re-connecting with regional rivals that go back decades,” he said. “This absolutely changes our trajectory to grow in athletics and as an institution.”

During the two-year period leading to the MWC invitation, Albrecht kept a busy schedule, not the least part of which was the school’s very successful comprehensive campaign. At the same time, in building support for USU’s candidacy athletically, he maintained contact with friends in key administrative positions in the west and throughout the nation.  

“Through this entire process, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of Scott Barnes’ involvement,” said Albrecht. “His respect among fellow athletic department leaders and his contacts in intercollegiate athletics were invaluable.”

Not surprisingly, there is a restlessness
in the Aggie Nation, which refuses to regard membership in the new league as the end-all achievement in the school’s 125-year history.

Aggie junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton said student-athletes have followed the news with excitement. 

“We know we’re moving up and we’re definitely trying to make our name known as being a great program, not just having a good season or a good two seasons. We’re trying to leave a legacy as a great program.”

“USU is in great hands right now,” said Jim Laub, an Aggie fan since his youth. “This is our golden age, not only for athletics but for the university as a whole. That doesn’t mean we’ve peaked. I think our greatest years are ahead of us.

“President Albrecht has provided unmatched leadership. Our leadership, both athletically and across the board, has been second to none in my experience.”

— Craig Hislop ’72