Joining the WAC is first big step

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Are you ready for some football -- Mavericks style?

Never mind that Thursday's announcement that the University of Texas at Arlington will take residence in the Western Athletic Conference didn't include any official mention of football joining the Mavericks' athletic stable. But in the minds of most associated with UTA -- from students to alumni to the upper reaches of the administration to WAC commissioner Karl Benson -- this surprisingly quick move is the biggest step to date in college football returning to campus.

The private hope around the Gilstrap Athletic Center is that football is up and hitting again in the next five years.

As much as relocating to the WAC after the upcoming academic year following 48 years in the Southland Conference is an upgrade for UTA's current 14 athletic programs, it doesn't make much long-term sense without football. Think preventing concussions with leather helmets. That doesn't work, and neither does this new setup without eventually adding shoulder pads to the UTA equipment room.

"We have not and have never closed the door on football," UTA president James Spaniolo said during the afternoon news conference at the Maverick Activities Center, "but it's not on the immediate horizon."

UTA dropped football in 1985 citing finances as the main reason, despite a relatively successful history. You remember that Pecan Bowl win in 1967, don't ya? How about former Cleveland Browns linebacker Cliff Odom? Yes, the Mavericks actually played in Maverick Stadium before Martin, Lamar and Bowie Highs.

Well, lack of interest factored into former UTA president Wendell Nedderman scuttling football as much as insufficient funds. The Division I-AA Mavericks didn't have much chance of competing for attention in these parts against the Dallas Cowboys, much less on the collegiate playing field with TCU and SMU during the Southwest Conference's heyday.

The Cowboys have not only moved in down the street, but the Horned Frogs and Mustangs are now bowl regulars. Texas-Oklahoma and Texas A&M-Arkansas games are played annually in the Metroplex. North Texas is moving into a glistening new stadium with hopes of reviving its program. It doesn't seem like there's much room for UTA to make any sort of dent on the local landscape. But that has hardly dampened the push on campus to bring back the sport that's king in Texas after nearly three decades. Students voted seven years ago to increase their athletic fees to reinstate football.

And then there's the WAC. It's a league that stretches from the Pacific Northwest to the Bayou and has undergone serious turmoil in the past 12 years as its membership continues to evolve or, in the opinion of some, dissolve. TCU and SMU were both members in the past decade. Boise State just left. Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada are gone next summer, bringing the total to a staggering 14 schools that have quit the WAC since 1999.

That's not exactly a recipe for stability, but Benson has remained steadfast in sustaining a viable league in the face of constant change and possible extinction. Conference realignments have taken a toll on Benson and the WAC, as schools continue to search for greener pastures. Being aggressive in hunting for fresh fruit as other leagues cherry pick its prized members is the WAC's only shot as survival. Benson and the WAC began serious discussions with UTA only 28 days ago.

The WAC needed UTA, along with other fellow SLC exiles UT-San Antonio and Texas State, to expand its footprint in talent-rich Texas, bring the league added regional stability and endure. (The WAC has made several unsuccessful overtures at North Texas.) The eastern portion of next year's 10-team WAC will have the three Texas schools along with Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State. The western faction includes San Jose State, Seattle, Denver, Idaho and Utah State.

The conference eventually wants to field 12 members -- two six-team divisions in all sports -- with at least nine playing football. Currently, only seven are doing so, which makes scheduling an issue. (Denver and Seattle don't have football, either.) UTA would do the WAC a major solid by picking up the pigskin.

"While I wish that we were making a joint announcement today regarding football, I certainly understand the dynamics that are in place, the politics that are in place, the priorities that are in place for the University of Texas at Arlington," Benson said. "But the WAC does have football needs and we all know that the state of Texas is one of, if not the greatest high school football environments in the country, and the sport of football is part of the fabric in Texas and part of its culture and part of the tradition.

"The day that a decision is made or would be made, we would welcome it with open arms."

While the WAC lacks the obvious star power of the slimmed-down Big 12 and other BCS leagues, it's a decided step up for UTA from the relatively obscurity of the Southland. UTA comes into a league that has three BCS games on its ledger in the past five years, has sent at least two men's basketball teams to the NCAA tournament in 24 of the past 28 years and has two baseball national champs since 2003.

The WAC remains one of 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences despite its changes, and is a league that once boasted BYU, Arizona and Utah. Sure, those fine institutions are long gone, but the WAC's history and name recognition remain.

That's key as the Mavericks attempt to entice better recruits in all sports and compete on a more national scale. The opening of the $78 million College Park Center in 2012 -- a 7,000-seat on-campus arena -- is a major boost for the basketball and volleyball programs, which have long played on Texas Hall's awkward stage. UTA hopes to host conference tournaments and NCAA playoffs at the CPC in the years to come, plus bring other championship events to Arlington.

"We have the ability to host tournaments and bring some prestigious games in," men's basketball coach Scott Cross said.

UTA isn't going into the WAC blind. The Mavericks have established rivalries with UTSA and Texas State, which both play football. Each is hoping to cash in on its respective school's gridiron fervor by hiring a big-time coach. Texas State welcomed former TCU and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione back to San Marcos, while UTSA brought one-time national champion Miami coach Larry Coker out of semi-retirement to launch the Roadrunners' program.

UTA, obviously, is a long way from its own coaching search. Much has to be done from a funding and infrastructure standpoint to even begin thinking about kickoffs. UTA needs to build, expand and/or renovate existing practice fields, locker rooms, coaches' offices and training facilities to support football. And there are 85 scholarships to cover.

Would the team play in Maverick Stadium, which currently is too small for FBS standards with 15,000 seats, or perhaps look into Jerry Jones' Cowboys Stadium? UTA's former SLC brethren have taken different stadium paths. Texas State is in the process of expanding Bobcat Stadium, and UTSA is inhabiting the Alamodome.

This move is costing some serious dough -- $300,000 in departure fees from the SLC, plus $600,000 in WAC entrance fees and about $500,000 yearly in added travel costs. But the move will have a payoff. Besides increased exposure -- the WAC has a TV deal with ESPN -- UTA will get a bigger share of BCS money and its cut of conference revenue will be substantially larger than it was in the SLC.

UTA projects its athletic operating budget growing from around $7 million to nearly $10 million in the next few years. That wouldn't have happened in the SLC.

Students and alumni aren't interested in budgets, just as NFL and NBA fans could care less about billionaires fighting millionaires in lockouts. Cheerleaders, homecomings and Saturday afternoon tailgates are what UTA faithful are taking away from today's historic announcement.

That's an aspect of college life currently missing at a university with more than 34,000 students and 90,000 alumni in Dallas-Fort Worth. Having football on campus again not only raises UTA's profile; it'll become a source of pride and school spirit for the Mavericks community.

It won't take long -- it's probably already happened for some -- before they start dreaming of conference titles and bowl games. Remember, the WAC was the backdrop for Boise State and Hawaii making runs to the BCS games. As one athletic department official asked, "Why can't we be the next Boise?"

Joining the WAC was the needed first step. There are still many more to come.

Art Garcia is a reporter for ESPNDallas.com.

Follow Art Garcia on Twitter: @ArtGarcia_NBA