Karl Benson talks Sun Belt expansion

Incoming Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson wants his new league to expand.

Benson, the longtime Western Athletic Conference commissioner, was introduced as the Sun Belt's next leader Thursday.

The 60-year-old Benson will replace Wright Water, who is retiring after 12 years. He will begin working with the Sun Belt on April 1 and take over as commissioner in July.

"While this may be a time of uncertainty in the college sports landscape, the Sun Belt is well positioned to take advantage of this uncertainty," Benson said during a teleconference.

The Sun Belt has 10 football members and Benson said he thinks there is "an advantage to getting to at least 12."

Benson declined to mention potential targets for Sun Belt expansion, but said any FBS school within the Sun Belt's existing footprint could be a fit -- as well as FCS schools with aspirations to move to the highest level of Division I football.

The Sun Belt currently spans the south with members as far east as Florida (Florida Atlantic and Florida International) and as far west as Texas (North Texas). In between are Troy University in Alabama, Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, Western Kentucky, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, South Alabama and Arkansas-Little Rock.

South Alabama will launch its FBS football program in 2013. Arkansas-Little Rock does not compete in Sun Belt football.

While Benson will be looking to expand the Sun Belt, his first job could be to convince its current members to stay.

The university leaders who are working to merge Conference USA and the Mountain West into a new conference have stated they would like to add at least two and as many as eight schools to the 16 they already have.

Sun Belt schools could be targets for the new league, especially those located Texas and Florida.

"The fact that there have been Sun Belt members mentioned is a testament to the growth those institutions have made, as well as a credit to the conference," Benson said.

Benson has been commissioner of the WAC since 1994, guiding that league through several transformations. Before that he was Mid-American Conference commissioner for four years.

He leaves the WAC during another upheaval.

Boise State left the WAC for the Mountain West after the 2010-11 season and Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii are leaving the WAC after this season for the Mountain West.

The WAC is left with Utah State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, Idaho and San Jose State, and it has Denver, Seattle, Texas State, Texas-Arlington and Texas-San Antonio joining for the 2012-13 season. Denver, Seattle and UT-Arlington do not have football programs. Boise State plans to rejoin the WAC in everything but football when it joins the Big East in 2013.

The new merged C-USA/Mountain West will likely look to the WAC for more members and Louisiana Tech is a geographical fit for the Sun Belt as well.

"There are schools in the footprint that would make sense," Benson said about the possibility of recruiting new Sun Belt members from his old employer.

"It's not the first time a commissioner has moved. While there may be a sensitive and some awkwardness, I think everybody understand once you change positions you're obligated to that conference."

Benson said his other goals for the Sun Belt are securing a third bowl contract for the conference and increasing the league's media revenues as well as exposure. The Sun Belt currently has an agreement with ESPN.


Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP