Sun Belt Expansion: Update

Recent news reports have surfaced that the Sun Belt Conference has been eyeing expansion ahead of its annual meetings in Destin, Fla., later this month. Last August, BlueRaiderzone.com was the first to break the news that the Sun Belt Conference was considering expansion and that Louisiana Tech was the focused target.

The reports published by the Miami Herald over the past few weeks offered partial verification of our reports that the Sun Belt Conference and Louisiana Tech were having informal discussions about the possibility of the two parties reuniting.

There's just one problem. Louisiana Tech and the Sun Belt Conference can't even seem to agree that they talked with each other or at least aren't willing to publicly acknowledge the same.

Despite our report from eight months ago and the Herald's recent reporting, Louisiana Tech athletic director Bruce Van de Velde denies having any discussions with the Sun Belt Conference. He also denies discussing Sun Belt membership with any representatives of the conference including Todd Turner, who was retained by the league to advise the league on conference expansion.

According to sources, "official" talks never materialized between the conference and Louisiana Tech, but the league was using a surrogate – Turner, the former Vanderbilt athletic director – to negotiate the Sun Belt's position on their behalf. Van de Velde acknowledged talking to Turner but denies having any discussions about Sun Belt membership.

"We did not enter into a discussion with the Sun Belt regarding membership which is what I have stated from the first time you called me," Van de Velde wrote in an email. "I did visit with Todd because I respect his opinion and wanted to get his read on the national landscape."

Van de Velde also refuted the Miami Herald story and denied interviewing with or talking to anyone at the Miami Herald despite the fact that the newspaper directly quoted and attributed comments to him.

"I will reiterate that I have not visited with Sun Belt officials, Van de Velde said. "If the Herald article states that then they are wrong. I have never spoken with the Herald and thus did not confirm anything (to them)."

But the Sun Belt's executive office refutes Van de Velde and backs up both the reporting by the Miami Herald and BlueRaiderZone.com.

"I can confirm that Adam Beasley from the Miami Herald and Todd Turner spoke with him (Van de Velde)," said John McElwain, the Sun Belt's Associate Commissioner for Communications.

Earlier today, Commissioner Wright Waters, was quoted by a San Antonio publication that there had been no official discussions with Louisiana Tech or any other institution. So, at least on that point Louisiana Tech and the Sun Belt Conference can agree on.

When asked, McElwain refused to go further to confirm any official negotiations with Louisiana Tech despite the obvious. If the Sun Belt is willing to acknowledge that Turner, who is representing the league on expansion issues, is talking to an official with Louisiana Tech what other conclusions should be drawn?

This isn't about "official" discussions, and apparently officials with both parties are willing to insult our intelligence and then see if anyone notices. Discussions are discussions regardless of whether they occur directly or indirectly, informally or formally or with surrogates or not.

Perhaps most telling out of all of this is the contrasting view points, once again, illustrate the fragile nature of the relationship between Louisiana Tech and its former conference home that has played out over the past decade. If nothing else it is likely an indictment on the prospects of the Sun Belt and Louisiana Tech ever reaching agreement on something as important as conference membership.

These discussions or lack thereof depending on what you choose to believe are taking place in a world that finds the once fledgling Sun Belt Conference in a position of strength and Louisiana Tech dealing with an uncertain future. The Sun Belt's football entity produced three bowl teams for the first time last season, and from a broader perspective has improved immensely from its startup in 2001.

Louisiana Tech, on the other hand, is in a precarious position because future revenues generated from the now depleted WAC will pale in comparison to its recent take that has been quite profitable for the University thanks in large part to two BCS appearances by Boise State and a rolling average of double digit units earned in the NCAA basketball tournament over the past decade.

Those units which determine how much each conference will take in from the NCAA Basketball Tournament guarantees Tech will continue to receive several hundred thousand dollars in basketball revenues generated by the conference, but only for few more years as the WAC's best and most lucrative appearances roll off. When that money dries up the only incentive Louisiana Tech has had to stay in the WAC will be gone, and the University's ability to afford its Division I programs will be put in jeopardy.

And none of this includes what is likely to be a depleted TV revenue stream which was already paltry compared to its Mountain West Conference neighbor. The departure of the WAC's most visible programs is likely to put a huge dent in Louisiana Tech's TV revenues.

Further complicating Tech's situation are clandestine-like measures and reluctance to engage in formal discussions which has been less than endearing particularly for the Sun Belt - a league it burned bridges with - when it left for the WAC 10 years ago.

As for Van de Velde and his steadfast denials, they are certainly consistent with Louisiana Tech's historical approach to the expansion topic. It's difficult to imagine the Miami Herald would quote him without having talked to him, and we are confident in our sources at BlueRaiderzone.com, but we'll leave it up to you to decide what is and is not the truth.

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