Vote on Sun Belt expansion during spring meetings growing less likely

MIAMI (Miami Herald) - A bigger, brighter Sun Belt Conference apparently will have to wait.

With less than month left until the Sun Belt's spring meetings, the odds of the conference voting on expansion during the upcoming conference in Destin have decreased by the day.

League brass had hoped that all the details for adding an 11th football team, which would join the league in 2012, would be ironed out by the meetings' May 22 opening. But that momentum has stalled in recent weeks, and it now appears unlikely to come to pass anytime soon.

Complicating matters further: Louisiana Tech, the program that best fits the Sun Belt's specific criteria, has no immediate plans to leave the Western Athletic Conference, Bulldogs athletic director Bruce Van De Velde said.

"Really, our main focus is continue to strengthen our overall athletic program," Van De Velde said last week. "We want to remain a strong member of the WAC, but we don't want to rule out any other opportunities.

"When it comes to conference realignment, every option is on the table. We won't rule out anything."

Sources familiar with the situation told The Miami Herald this month that the Sun Belt had entered into preliminary talks with at least one conference-affiliated Football Bowl Subdivision program about joining the league.

This week, Van De Velde confirmed that he had several conversations with Todd Turner, a consultant hired by the Sun Belt to identify possible expansion candidates, over the past year, but stressed that those discussions never progressed into specificities.

Sticking Point?

Louisiana Tech finds itself in a precarious spot, so long as its fortunes are tied to the stripped-down WAC. The Bulldogs were formerly part of the Sun Belt, but left for the then-powerful WAC — and said some not-so-complimentary things about their old home on the way out the door.

But now that the WAC has been ravaged by the Mountain West Conference, which will pilfer its four best football teams over the next two years, the Sun Belt could start looking a lot more appealing to the Ruston-based school of 11,000.

It just does not appear to have reached that point yet — not with the Bulldogs again looking for a more appealing escape hatch.

It is common knowledge that Louisiana Tech — like most every other mid-major university — would jump at an offer to join Conference USA, the thriving 12-member league which recently signed a multiyear TV contract with Fox Sports, a move sure to further heighten its exposure.

Several Factors

But what is not known: How high Conference USA has Tech on its list of potential targets, should the league need or decide to expand. But if C-USA isn't a near-future option and the WAC doesn't improve quickly, Louisiana Tech might face a decision uncomfortable to those supporters who are not so enamored with the Sun Belt.

"We are really concerned about membership on the football side [of the WAC]," Van De Velde said. "But you don't worry about the things that you cannot control. You worry about the things you can control, and that's strengthening entire program."

The short-term ramifications for the Sun Belt, which only would entertain FBS programs that lie within its Southeastern geographical footprint: There might not be any other suitable candidates for expansion — at least right now.

And certainly, the chances of an 11th member coming before the conference for a vote next month are remote at best.

"We're not afraid to expand, but it's got to be someone that brings additional value to the people that have invested in this league," commissioner Wright Waters said. "I don't know that there's anybody out there that right now fits our needs."