The conference realignment carousel in college athletics is spinning today as fast as ever.
Depending on your perspective, the most recent splash of news of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten Conference was either wildly unpredictable (really, who saw the two storied Los Angeles-based schools opting to join the Midwest/East Coast-based league?) or it was painfully obvious as college football has seemed to be heading toward either two or four mega conferences for some time. (The Big 12 lost marquee members Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC a year ago.)
Meanwhile, other schools and conferences around the country – including the University of New Mexico Lobos and New Mexico State Aggies – are left playing an uncomfortable waiting game of seeing what gutted conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-12 do before the next tier of programs decide what truly is best for them.
“If you said you knew something was going to happen, I think that would be a joke,” NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia said. “You can be ecstatic where you’re at and happy about where you’re going, but you better keep your head on a swivel, too.”
The Aggies are competing in their final year as a football independent and member of the Western Athletic Conference in all other sports before joining Conference USA, including for football, for 2023-24.
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez echoed the sentiment that the landscape is one that is ever changing and requires constant attention. He is in his fifth year and started after the 2016 realignment blitz that even included the Lobos sending a memo the Journal reported on seeking an invitation then to the Big 12.
While the Lobos remain as committed as ever to the Mountain West Conference, Nuñez said there is a constant push to make the athletic department as strong as possible for whatever situation may present itself down the road – Mountain West or not.
“Our continued focus is on being the best comprehensive athletics program in the Mountain West and providing a world-class experience for our student-athletes,” Nuñez said in a statement sent to the Journal. “We are proud members of the MWC, the strongest Group of Five conference. We are no different than many other institutions during this period of uncertainty in college athletics in that we are always looking for ways to better position our institution and raise the profile of our programs.”
Nuñez noted the department in recent years has proven strong in several areas: fundraising, academics, championships in various sports and a continued effort to improve community engagement.
While a return to national relevance for men’s basketball and improvement from the football team on the field would help in a variety of ways – especially at a time when football television money is the gas fueling the entire college athletics industry – Nuñez and UNM realize significant facility upgrades for football is the single most important factor to put his athletic department in position to be more attractive to a conference that might be looking to add a new member.
“With our continued commitment to improving our facilities, with the addition of the New Mexico Mutual Champions Training Center, we are making incredible strides but still have more facility improvements that are necessary,” Nuñez said.
Earlier this month, Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said on Denver-based KOA-AM radio that, while he like everyone is waiting on what may be next for remaining members of the Pac-12 and Big 12, he’s happy with the position the league is in right now.
“I think we’re in a position where we solidified ourselves – some of our institutions had an opportunity to leave a year ago and join the American (Athletic Conference) and opted to stay,” Thompson said. “And I think that was a smart move. We had our best year ever – four 10-win football teams; we had four teams in the men’s basketball (NCAA Tournament). … There could be some Big 12 schools, there could be some Pac-12 schools that could be interested in the Mountain West Conference.”