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Cowboys travel plans expand with merged conference announce

Feb 14, 2012 - The Associated Press

The Wyoming Cowboys and Cowgirls will likely play in a league that goes coast-to-coast and beyond if an announced merger of Conference USA and current and future members of the Mountain West Conference comes to fruition.

The two leagues are taking a bigger-is-better approach to college athletics.

The 16 schools, including Wyoming, announced plans Monday to form a new league that will begin in 2013 and have as many as 24 teams located in five time zones.

"This is an exciting development that will stabilize the current conferences and create the first truly national conference with members in five time zones and television viewership from coast to coast," UNLV President Neal Smatresk said in a statement. "We are moving our plans forward rapidly and expect to complete our conversations in the near future. Look for further announcements soon as we work together on this exciting new venture."

The new conference likely will have 18-24 schools, split into divisions, and not only have a football championship game but also semifinals. It also will hold a conference basketball tournament, the statement said.

School leaders said they plan to complete work on the new league in six months.

"This is a member-driven initiative as opposed to a conference-driven initiative," Tulane President Scott Cowen said in a telephone interview.

In October, Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky and Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson announced the two leagues were working to merge their football operations starting in 2013.

At the time, both commissioners left open the possibility that the football relationship could grow into something bigger.

Since then four C-USA members -- SMU, Houston, Memphis and Central Florida -- have announced they will join the Big East in 2013. Boise State and San Diego State from the Mountain West also announced they would be joining the Big East for football and switching their other sports to new conferences. The Mountain West also lost TCU to the Big 12.

The new plan is for Conference USA and the Mountain West to join forces and start over, possibly with new television deals. Both conferences currently are in the middle of contracts with CBS Sports Network that run through 2015-16. CBS has an option to extend the deal with the Mountain West for four years. C-USA also has a deal with Fox Sports Network that runs through 2015-16.

"We've had some very preliminary and high-level conversations with the TV network, not at the detail-level," Cowen said. "We think this new conference will draw considerable interest from the networks."

The schools involved are:

--Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico and Wyoming, which all currently compete in the Mountain West;

--Alabama-Birmingham, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Mississippi, Texas-El Paso, Tulane and Tulsa, which all currently compete in Conference USA;

--Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii, which all currently compete in the Western Athletic Conference, but are set to join the Mountain West in 2012.

"It is apparent that this association has great potential and there are leaders within the group that are committed to maximizing it," Banowsky said.

All the schools except Hawaii will compete in all sports in the new conference. Hawaii will be a football-only member, though the Warriors could rack up some serious mileage when they face East Carolina in Greenville, N.C., (4,864 miles away) or UAB (4,358).

"The divisions will be constructed around the regional bases," Cowen said. "Rivalries will be retained."

Thompson said: "There are a myriad of details and moving parts that will be finalized in the weeks and months ahead, but there is positive momentum toward long-term stability and a tremendous opportunity for all involved."

Cowen said the likelihood of major changes being made to the BCS prompted the discussions between the university presidents and chancellors to draw up a new plan for the future.

"As long as the system changes, and we are hopeful it will, this new association will not be hurt at all (by the changes)," he said. "We welcome the opportunity to prove our worth on the field."