Last Wednesday I had the tremendous opportunity to visit the Sun Belt Conference offices in New Orleans, tour the facility at the Mercedes-Benz (Louisiana) Superdome and sit down with current Sun Belt and former Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson.
We sat down for about a 25-minute long discussion that covered a plethora of topics including:
– Remaining concerns other Sun Belt schools have of Idaho in the Sun Bent
– The deciding factors leading to the SBC’s invitation to Idaho
– Where the Sun Belt might go for its 12th member for football and all sports
– The future of the Sun Belt in terms of positioning itself in the Group of Five in the new college football playoff
– What he sees as Idaho’s needs facilities wise in the future
– And New Mexico State’s standing in terms of getting an all-sports invitation from the conference
– Among other things
Sean Kramer of Vandal Nation’s sit down interview with commissioner Karl Benson:
Sean Kramer: Operating under the assumption that adding Idaho didn’t have unanimous support, what were the concerns and do those concerns still exist?
Karl Benson: “I don’t know if there were concerns, I think some reluctance was a better term. The reluctance was to go outside the footprint. When I left the WAC and came into the Sun Belt to reshape the Sun Belt, the focus was on establishing a footprint. And, even though we were going to be from Texas to Florida, we at least wanted to create divisions. We created the western division at six, and we were going to have six in the east. And then that got blown up. So then, we lost Florida Atlantic and Middle Tennessee a year ago about this time. So that kind of changed our strategy.”
“What really led to the decision to add Idaho was the creation of the college football playoff and how the Sun Belt was going to position itself within that with our peer conferences. Those other four who we are going to compete with for that automatic spot, those other four are going to be doing a conference championship game. And so, the year before we specifically decided not to go to 12 teams for football and to stay at 10 and build within that and we didn’t look at a 12 team conference as being that valuable.”
“But once the change happened, my recommendation was we needed to get to 12. The day we added Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in the morning and New Mexico State and Idaho in the afternoon as football only, that was driven by the need to get to a conference championship game. Then we lost Western Kentucky, so next year we’re an 11 team league in 2014.”
“And the fact that they were the current FBS members, we put value on that. The geography we looked past, and thought there was a need to have FBS membership with us. So even though some reluctance, we looked beyond geography and media market.”
Kramer: James Madison has just released their FBS feasibility study, and have been linked many times as a potential Sun Belt member. Are they a player to potentially join the Sun Belt?
Benson: “Liberty has already declared their desire to go FBS, they’re just waiting for the invitation. As has Jacksonville State and Alabama State have expressed their desire. James Madison has gone through that, they expect after the first of the year they will reach a decision whether to make the move to FBS. If they do, the question is what conference will they align with. We certainly would be interested to have that conversation. But it’s several months off. And the earliest anything could happen would be for 2015.”
Kramer: What are you looking for in the Sun Belt’s next member?
Benson: “In this case, it’s geography. Right now we have the footprint that I mentioned. Outside of the football beast, we have six schools in the west … with UT-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock not playing football. We did that deliberately. In the east, to create a six-team division in the east that would satisfy our football as well as our other sports, right now we’re looking for somebody in that footprint. And that’s where Liberty and James Madison would fit.”
Kramer: The four schools joining your conference for football are all struggling quite a bit right now. Is this a concern for you?
Benson: “I’m not surprised at this, I knew that both were going to be in re-building, Idaho and New Mexico State. I’m hoping that it’s a quick fix but in the other hand I’m hoping that it’s going to be for the long term.”
Kramer: What would you like to see from the University of Idaho in terms of football facilities?
Benson: “I’ve seen my last year in the WAC was their first year of the new Kibbie Dome, I saw that, that made for a significant improvement in just the optics and the visual. I think that ideally they (should) somehow find a way to add (5,000) to (7,000) to 10,000 more seats just so they can get away from the stigma that comes from a 16,000 seat football stadium at the FBS level. I don’t know how realistic that is. You look at characteristics in how schools are compared to others, and one of the important characteristics is what is your football season attendance, what’s your average attendance?”
“There’s kind of a number there that Idaho, you can never reach, just because of their limited (capacity). In the short term I know that (Rob Spear) understands that before they can even think about adding, they have to make sure they’re selling the Kibbie Dome out and that people are standing in line to get tickets and students are camping out to get their tickets for the game.”
Kramer: New Mexico State has implicitly expressed interest in joining the Sun Belt as an all-sport member. Where does NMSU stand in terms of that?
Benson: “At this juncture we are not looking that direction. You never say never, you don’t know when there might be other membership movement, and this juncture we’re focusing on the eastern half”
“I know the NMSU President came out a couple of days ago after our meetings last week kind of acknowledging that it wasn’t imminent and more than likely wasn’t going to happen.”
Kramer: The Western Athletic Conference, your former conference, is in its first season without football in its 50 year history. What is your relationship like with current WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd?
Benson: “Jeff and I are great friends. He worked alongside of me for 18 years, I couldn’t have asked for a better number two person than Jeff Hurd. And I’m happy for him that he finally got the interim commissioner tag taken away. But he has a very, very difficult job ahead of him. Obviously I had a lot of blood, sweat and tears in the WAC and to see that WAC football no longer exists is disappointing.”
“There were a lot of casualties that came from conference re-alignment – athletic directors lost their jobs, presidents lost their jobs, commissioners lost their jobs, but one of the biggest casualties was that the WAC dissolved and that there is no longer any WAC football. What’s left in terms of membership certainly doesn’t resemble the history and the tradition of the WAC. I know that Jeff’s goal is that despite the lack of name recognition, that the WAC still carries a brand and notoriety that if those teams can be successful on the basketball side that the WAC will be back in a recognized state.”
“They all need each other. The schools that came into the WAC needed the WAC and the WAC needed those teams. I know that Idaho made the decision to go another direction, I know that the other WAC members certainly would have liked the Vandals to stay.”
Kramer: The Sun Belt is trying a lot of things in terms of expanding its media market, expanding bowl ties, Tuesday night football and games on ESPN. What do you see as your vision for the future of the Sun Belt and competing with the other Group of Five conferences?
Benson: “Notoriety and winning games has to occur first. We saw it in the WAC, the WAC went through many membership changes. At the beginning it was Fresno State coming along when the WAC needed a flagship program, and Boise State came along and replaced Fresno State, and Hawaii had their run and Nevada had their run.”
“We need a team from the Sun Belt to break into the top 25. You can’t get into the top 10 until you get into the top 25, and the Sun Belt hasn’t really had a team in the past that’s been a top 25 team. That’s the first step is to break into that top 25 rank. I’ve said many times that are teams in the Sun Belt that have better facilities and have a better recruiting footprint than Boise State had when Boise State joined the WAC in 2001, and there isn’t any reason that there can’t be a Sun Belt team that has that same type of success.”
“Boise State had a couple years where the stars were aligned, one of the things we are focusing on in the Sun Belt is more strategic scheduling. When Boise State capitalized on a very kind of mild non-conference schedule, they didn’t go out and over-schedule. Unfortunately a lot of the Sun Belt teams have become dependent on the million dollar guarantees.”
“The chancellor of Troy, who has been in the Sun Belt for its entirety from a football standpoint, has stated that ‘many of us have become addicted to the million dollar guarantees games’ and we have to wean ourselves off of those, and create a better non-conference schedule that will allow for a team to get to top 25, to get to top 15 and get to top 10.”
“The new revenue distribution program that goes into play next year between the five conferences has some tremendous financial incentives to achieve some football success. If our teams perform in the non-conference and become top 25 type teams, as a conference in that Group of Five , our goal right now is to get in to the upper echelon of our five peer conferences. The conferences are going to be ranked one through five in the revenue distribution program. So there’s a financial incentive as a group of teams to be as high as we can in these conference rankings. That’s our real goal is to be in the top 25 and there will be some significant financial awards for the conference if we can achieve that.”
Kramer: Anything the fans back in Idaho need to know about their future football conference?
Benson: “I expect to be on the sidelines watching the Vandals in a bowl game in the near future”