A new era of Western Kentucky athletics is soon to come.
The Daily News learned Saturday that WKU will make an official announcement – as early as Monday – that the school is leaving the Sun Belt Conference to join Conference USA.
WKU officials would not comment, but the long-rumored move gained even more steam Friday when Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick told the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, “Now (in C-USA) we're adding Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and, in 2015, Charlotte."
That statement was the first made publicly by any school or conference official on the matter and appears to be the one that is forcing both C-USA and WKU to formally announce the move.
Western Kentucky will be in line to replace Tulsa University, which sources say has told Conference USA it will leave the league this summer for the yet-unnamed conference formerly known as the Big East.
The Hilltoppers will spend one more season in the SBC before joining its new league July 1, 2014. There will be no exit fee from the Sun Belt since the school has given its current league more than 12 months' notice of its impending departure.
Conference USA requires a $2 million entry fee, which will have to be raised by WKU through private funds. The move also needs approval from WKU's Board of Regents, which has called a special meeting at 11:30 a.m. on Monday.
Western Kentucky's new conference will be filled with familiar foes.
Former Sun Belt members Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas and rival Middle Tennessee are all slated to become C-USA members this summer. One-time SBC members Louisiana Tech, Alabama-Birmingham and Old Dominion – which has former WKU athletic director Wood Selig and former WKU baseball coach Chris Finwood on staff – are also a part of the conference.
Each member of the league fields a football program, from long-established teams like Marshall and Southern Mississippi to startups Charlotte and Texas at San Antonio. Conference USA has five FBS bowl tie-ins with the BBVA Compass Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and Ticket City Bowl. No team in the history of C-USA that has been bowl eligible has been left out of a postseason bowl game.
Conference USA's current and ongoing television deal includes the networks of Fox and CBS College Sports and pays each school $1.17 million annually. Each school in the Sun Belt Conference received about $40,000 last year in television revenue share.
From a geographic perspective, WKU will still have lengthy road trips to make to Miami and El Paso, Texas, but more opponents will be within drivable distances, possibly creating stronger rivalries.
The Tops will have six opponents within 600 miles of its campus – including Middle Tennessee, which announced its move to Conference USA in November.
On the field and courts of play, C-USA had the nation's 11th best RPI in men's basketball last season, four spots better than the SBC – even though the Sun Belt placed two teams in the NCAA tournament and CUSA had one.
In football, Conference USA teams went 4-1 in bowl games, although four of those teams are departing the league this summer. The Sun Belt went 2-2 in its postseason games and one bowl eligible team – MTSU – was not selected for a bowl game.
On the baseball diamond, C-USA is currently ranked 11th in RPI while the Sun Belt is fourth. In women's basketball, one team made the NCAA tournament and four others made the women's NIT – but four of those programs will no longer be in the league when WKU joins.
Western Kentucky's teams joined the Sun Belt Conference in 1982, save for the football program, which transitioned out of the Gateway Football Conference in 2007 and into the Sun Belt and the Football Bowl Subdivision starting in 2009.