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Sun Belt Commissioner: 'We were trying to stay a step ahead of Conference USA'

By Chip Patterson | College Football/Basketball Writer

News of conference realignment has mostly been focused around the relocation - both actual moves and rumors - of teams in current BCS conferences, but the drama surrounding conference membership has run through all 11 FBS schools over the last several months.

An open records request by the The Murfreesboro Daily News Journal has revealed some of the efforts Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson took to preserve the future of the league. This included proposing a four-conference merger, convincing current Conference USA members to join the Sun Belt, and targeting as many as 21 schools for possible expansion.

When the smoke cleared in late spring, the conference added Georgia State, Texas State, and UT-Arlington for 2013.

"I think it was a positive that we were proactive. We had an order that I wanted to take," Benson told the Daily News Journal. "We were trying to force the issue. We were trying to stay a step ahead of Conference USA."

Conference USA reached out to current Sun Belt members North Texas and Florida International as part of its reloading efforts after losing Houston, UCF, Memphis and SMU to the Big East. C-USA will also welcome Louisiana Tech, UT-San Antonio, Charlotte and Old Dominion in 2013.

According to the information gathered by The Daily News Journal, and the context provided by Benson, the commissioner began aggressive expansion discussions with school administrators in April.

On April 1, Benson emailed a powerpoint presentation to Sun Belt presidents/chancellors and athletic directors, laying out the league's various realignment options.

One slide listed 21 schools to be considered as "possible additions/replacements" – including Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Texas State, Utah State, UT-San Antonio, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Jacksonville State, James Madison, Liberty, Charlotte, Old Dominion, Belmont, College of Charleston, Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, St. Louis and Texas-Arlington.

"That was just to demonstrate that the Sun Belt had many options," Benson said. "We needed to think out of the box, but it was just an exercise in showing that the Sun Belt is in a good spot."

The same presentation included several maps of potential conference mergers – one of which was titled “Makes Too Much Sense” and proposed a 33-school superconference combining the Sun Belt, C-USA, WAC and Mountain West Conference.

"I had very quiet inquiries with (Mountain West commissioner) Craig Thompson and (C-USA commissioner) Britton Banowsky to see if, 'Hey, would you be interested?'" Benson said. "But that was dismissed quickly. No interest."


Benson then reached out to UAB, Southern Miss, East Carolina and Marshall in hopes of pulling them away from Conference USA. He then put an aggressive 48-hour deadline on Louisiana Tech and UTSA to decide between the Sun Belt and Conference USA. Both efforts were unsuccessful.

"It wasn't the first time I tried to get out in front and maneuver like that," Benson explained.

This is Karl Benson's third stop as commissioner, after four years leading the Mid-American Conference and 18 with the Western Athletic Conference. He said the future of the WAC, which will cease FBS participation after this season, is one of the reasons he decided to accept the Sun Belt job in March.

"I knew how tenuous the WAC was and I could see what might happen," Benson said. "The Sun Belt had options, and that's what led me to have interest in the Sun Belt rather than trying to save the WAC one more time."

Benson says he has no regrets with the failed expansion efforts, and believes the Sun Belt has a bright future. But in this fluid era of conference membership, the work to preserve a league's future must be done around-the-clock. While the game of musical chairs has stopped for now, the report was an interesting look at the scope of these private proposals between administrators.

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