It’s not often that a press conference ends with applause from the media, but Wednesday evening in Legacy Hall following the announcement that the University of Nevada, Reno Wolf Pack would be joining the Mountain West Conference in either 2011 or 2012, that was exactly what happened.
Nevada Athletic Director Cary Groth and Nevada President Milt Glick had fielded questions about the big news for the better part of 20 minutes when Groth asked a question of the more than a dozen members of the media who had assembled in Legacy Hall.
Many of them had been chasing the story all day.
“Can I ask you a question?” a smiling Groth asked. “What do you think of this decision?”
If the applause in the room was any indication, Wednesday’s announcement could very well be one of the most pivotal decisions ever made in the more than 110-year history of Wolf Pack athletics.
Earlier in the day, at approximately 1 p.m., the Mountain West made its offer of membership to Nevada and to Fresno State, which also accepted the invitation.
The decision, Glick admitted, wasn’t as easy as many would have thought.
Although Wednesday was “momentous,” as Glick called it, he said his enthusiasm was tempered with the knowledge that Nevada would be ending its long association with the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).
Nevada joined the WAC in 2000. The Mountain West Conference was founded with eight members in 1998. TCU joined the conference in 2005 and Boise State University accepted an invitation to the league on June 11, 2010. Other 2011 members include San Diego State, Air Force, New Mexico, Wyoming, in-state rival UNLV, Colorado State and BYU. Reports throughout Wednesday indicated that BYU was leaning toward leaving the Mountain West, becoming an independent in football and joining the WAC in all other sports.
“It was a very difficult decision because the WAC is a highly competitive conference and we’ve made many friends in the conference,” Glick said. “Leaving them was very difficult.
“On the other hand, I think it’s long been a goal of our athletic department, this university, our community and the board of regents that the traditional rivalry with UNLV and Nevada should be enhanced and we should be in the same conference.”
“The addition of Fresno State and Nevada further enhances the Mountain West Conference,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said in a statement. “Our Board of Directors has continued to be diligent and aggressive in executing our strategy for positioning the MWC in the national landscape. We are excited to welcome these two institutions into the Mountain West. Both fit geographically and create new conference rivalries.”
Glick said several factors went into the decision, not the least of which was the fact that northern Nevada has long craved a chance to join the Mountain West.
“This is extraordinary,” he said. “It puts us in a conference that is both strong academically and athletically. It not only preserves, but enhances, our traditional rivalries with UNLV and Boise State. It creates new rivalries with schools such as the University of New Mexico and the other fine universities of the conference. I think people have been waiting a long time for this day, and I really think this is a game-changer for us.”
Groth, who in seven years as athletic director has built Nevada’s athletic program into one that has seen some memorable firsts, credited the program’s coaches and student-athletes for the opportunity that presented itself on Wednesday.
The Wolf Pack is enjoying an era of unprecedented success on and off the field. The University of Nevada sponsors 16 NCAA Division I sports, and the Wolf Pack has captured 20 WAC Championships in the last eight years, including five men’s basketball crowns from 2004-08, three women’s swimming and diving titles from 2007-09, three softball championships (2006, 2008-09), two indoor track and field titles (2003-04) and individual titles by cross country in 2004, football in 2005, women’s soccer in 2006 and men’s golf in 2007. Nevada has also earned five consecutive bowl appearances, eight straight men’s basketball postseason invitations (NCAA appearances from 2004-07), two women’s basketball postseason appearances and NCAA championship invitations for men’s golf, volleyball, softball and women’s soccer.
Nevada's graduation rates and Academic Progress Rate numbers are at all-time highs, and the university is listed as one of the best in the nation in providing opportunities for women in sports.
“We always have our program prepared … have our program in the best possible position for any opportunity,” she said. “And that’s a credit to our coaches, and to our student-athletes. To maintain a competitive program, to do the right thing academically, do the right thing socially, it’s a blessing to work with people like that, because they’ve allowed this situation, this opportunity, to happen. It’s wonderful.”
Like Glick, Groth had high praise for the WAC and its longtime commissioner, Karl Benson.
“There’s also a feeling of losing good colleagues,” she said. “Karl Benson’s been a very good commissioner. We’ve developed some strong friendships and alliances with the WAC. To tell them that we were leaving, that’s difficult.”
Added Glick: “(Karl Benson has) worked very hard to make the WAC as strong as possible, in trying to put together strong alternatives after Boise left. We have very strong relationships with the WAC, and the conference has worked very hard to try to help us.
Glick and Groth stressed that there will be many more discussions in the coming days and weeks to finalize the move. Among them: Whether Nevada will leave the WAC in 2011 or 2012; how much Nevada will have to pay in a “buy-out” to leave the WAC.
Nevada’s preference is to open Mountain West play in 2011, Groth said.
“I’d like it to happen as soon as possible, but we’ve still got to discuss that,” she said.
Glick added that, “Whatever that exit fee is, spread out over five years, we will still come out ahead. … Some of it we believe will be in increased athletic attendance revenue, some of it will be in reduced travel costs, and some of it we believe will come from people who have long wanted this to happen.”
Although Nevada and UNLV have long been rivals in athletics, the two institutions have not been members of the same conference since both competed in the Big West Conference in the early 1990s. Surprisingly – but maybe not so surprisingly given the strong, collegial relationship that Glick and UNLV President Neal Smatresk have forged – UNLV was one of the most ardent supporters of Nevada’s candidacy to join the Mountain West.
Near the end of the press conference, before she turned the tables on the media by asking them a question, Groth noted that she thought all of Nevada’s programs will be competitive in the Mountain West, whether it is in 2011 or 2012.
“Many of our fans have wanted this for a long time,” she said.
And on a night when history was made, Nevada’s top athletic administrator noted that 2010 was already well on its way to being a memorable one for the Wolf Pack faithful.
“This,” she said, “is going to be a year that holds a lot of promise for the University of Nevada.”