Can UTEP Parlay The Big 12 Reshuffling into a Mountain West Move?
Texas A&M's worst nightmare is suddenly a reality. Texas and Oklahoma are reportedly leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, putting the Longhorns and Aggies back in the same conference. Once the vote gets approved by the SEC schools, the move could happen in 2025 once the Big 12's current media contract expires. However, there is always the possibility that the schools join the SEC sooner. Suddenly the Big 12 Conference is without its two largest and most successful athletic programs and the league is already looking at potential replacements. As the dominoes continue to fall, there will be plenty of Group of 5 leagues reshuffling its membership and ultimately UTEP could get their opportunity at last to leave Conference USA and move to the Mountain West.
As I have chronicled in the past, the Miners have been linked to the MWC multiple times since the league formed in 1998. Whether it was the C-USA/MWC Super League falling apart, or rumors that former President Dr. Diana Natalicio vetoed the move, UTEP is still in the same league since they left the WAC in the fall of 2005. During these 16 years, the Miners have never won more than five conference games or finished higher than second (2005) while men's basketball won their only regular season championship in 2010 and never won a postseason title. Interestingly enough, the women's basketball team has three regular season C-USA titles (2008, 2012, and 2016) and one tournament championship in 2012.
UTEP does have a new President in Dr. Heather Wilson and a Director of Athletics in Jim Senter that have not hidden their desire to explore other conferences. This new Miners regime knows that the school's athletic department spends a fortune in cross-country travel and their fan base has never warmed up to the majority of schools in C-USA. During the last few years, they have made significant upgrades to the Sun Bowl and plans are in place to provide similar renovations to the 45-year old Don Haskins Center. The only thing left for the UTEP athletic department is to start winning in both football and men's basketball, which would make them such a desirable program.
College football season is almost a month away, but talk of conference reshuffling will dominate the headlines between now and then. With the Big 12 needing to find a pair of replacements for both Texas and Oklahoma, here are the schools that could be the most logical fits: Houston, SMU, Memphis, Cincinnati, BYU, and Boise State. The first four on that list are currently in the American Athletic Conference, while BYU is an independent in football, and Boise State is in the Mountain West. Interestingly enough, Boise State's Director of Athletics is Jeramiah Dickey, who grew up in El Paso and is a protégé of former UTEP Associate AD Mack Rhoades. In the past, Boise State has not shied away from their desire to leave the Mountain West. Since TCU is currently in the Big 12, adding SMU might be a long shot since the league already has the Dallas market covered. Houston would make the most sense for one of the two spots, since their television market is currently the 7th largest in the country and it would help replace losing Texas. If that was to happen, the battle for the final spot in the Big 12 would be intense.
If the Mountain West was to lose Boise State (they did for a few months back in late 2011 when the Broncos along with San Diego State were going to join the Big East), they would need to look for a replacement. UTEP has been linked to the MWC before, and there was talk back in 2015 and again in 2018. In addition to the Miners, other C-USA Texas schools like Rice, UTSA, and North Texas could also pursue a move to the Mountain West.
There are plenty of other possibilities in the conference rumor mill. What if the AAC expands to the west? Would that involve teams in the MWC or even possibly some schools in the Big 12? Could the remaining schools in the Big 12 merge with the Pac 12? Could the ACC expand?
Only time will tell how many college conferences will reshuffle their membership from this latest bombshell. Like many other schools, UTEP will want to position itself for a move to a conference that better suits its geography, past rivalries, and better television deals. The Mountain West checks all the boxes for them, but it remains to be seen if the interest is mutual.