San Diego State’s Deep Run Plays Right Into Conference Realignment

HOUSTON — Whether or not John David Wicker, the San Diego State athletic director, owns many leather-bound books or an apartment that smells of rich mahogany, he could be pardoned for channeling his inner Ron Burgundy.

With its men’s basketball team in the national championship game, which it lost to Connecticut on Monday night, and with two major conferences eyeing the Aztecs as a potential addition, San Diego State is, indeed, kind of a big deal.

“People have heard of us,” Wicker said on Saturday night, before the Aztecs won a thriller over Florida Atlantic on Lamont Butler Jr.’s jumper at the buzzer to advance to the title game. “But now they know who we are.”

San Diego State has been quietly competent for more than a decade in men’s basketball and football. They’ve won at least 20 games in basketball every season but one beginning in 2005-6. (They slumped to 19-14 in 2016-17.) And their football team has gone to 12 consecutive bowls — not including the 2020 season truncated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Their moment, beyond this breakthrough N.C.A.A. tournament, is due largely to the world shifting around them.

When the Chargers left San Diego for Los Angeles in 2017, it left a void in the city that the Aztecs’ basketball and football teams have eagerly filled. And when Southern California and U.C.L.A. announced last June that they were bolting the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten, it opened up another lane for San Diego State.

Suddenly, the Pac-12, with its next television rights deal up for negotiation, needed a toe hold in Southern California, and the two schools that were unlikely to allow the Aztecs entry were no longer part of the equation.

And if the Pac-12 isn’t interested, the Big 12 Conference is — Commissioner Brett Yormark repeatedly expressed the desire to have a school in every time zone. Yormark attended Saturday night’s game, sitting about a dozen rows up, across from the San Diego State bench, with a clean view of Butler’s game-winning shot.

Conference realignment is, of course, rarely driven by anything but money.

And it’s hard to say many of these decisions have worked out anywhere but the balance sheet.

San Diego State viewed Utah, which moved from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 in 2011, as a “road map,” Wicker said.Credit…Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Nebraska football has become a punchline since its move to the Big Ten from the Big 12 in 2011. Maryland’s rich basketball history isn’t appreciated in the Big Ten as it had been in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Missouri has a similar story to tell since it moved to the Southeastern Conference, away from its historical partners in the Big 12. And neither Maryland nor Missouri has been more than an afterthought in football.

Yes, Rutgers’ coffers are fuller — but so is the athletic department’s deficit while the football program has slipped from competitive in the Big East to irrelevant in the Big Ten, having failed to win more than one conference game five times in the last eight seasons. (The ascent of the Rutgers men’s basketball team is an exception.)

Soon enough, similar questions may be raised about whether the money grabs made by Texas and Oklahoma — who are fleeing the Big 12 for the SEC — and the Los Angeles schools were more short sighted than savvy. A pathway to the football playoff, even with its expansion for 2024, seems considerably more challenging for all four schools.

And when San Diego State flew to Orlando, Fla., for the first weekend of the men’s basketball tournament, halfway through the six-hour flight administrators and coaches began to consider what the Los Angeles schools had in store.

“Even though it was a charter, I thought, my goodness, those guys have to do this every other week to play a basketball game?” San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher said. “It would be exhausting.”

He added: “I’m wishing them all the best, but that’s more travel than I would ever wish on anybody.”

What is notable about all these moves is they are lateral — hopscotching from one of the so-called power conferences (Big Ten, SEC, A.C.C., Pac-12, Big 12 and the dissolution of the Big East for football) for bigger television deals.

San Diego State is looking at a different model — climbing the ladder.

For decades, that has been rare. But the Big 12, after losing Oklahoma and Texas, is adding Brigham Young, Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston. B.Y.U. brings a nationwide fan base tied to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the other three schools have been national championship contenders in football or men’s basketball in the last six years.

San Diego State, though, is studying a rare conference realignment success story in Utah, which moved from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12 in 2011. Utah had already begun preparing for a move by investing in athletics and burnishing the university’s academic profile so that when television rights deals were being negotiated, the Utes were an attractive candidate for expansion.

“That’s the road map,” Wicker said.

In recent years, San Diego State has aggressively courted research grants, built a new science and engineering complex, offered scholarships to the state’s top students and improved graduation rates in an effort to clean up its well-earned reputation as a party school.

The basketball program has been the West Coast’s next-best to Gonzaga over the last two decades and draws raucous crowds at the 12,000-seat Viejas Arena. The football program now has the spiffy 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium, which opened last August. The stadium sits a few miles from campus on the site of the old Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Chargers and Padres played for decades.

Funding for the stadium, part of a $3.5 billion, 135-acre redevelopment project that will take place over the next decade or so, was greenlighted just days into the pandemic in March 2020.

Snapdragon Stadium opened last year, and will host San Diego State football, a National Women’s Soccer League team and professional lacrosse.Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images For Nll

If there were questions about the wisdom of investing in college football at the time, forging ahead proved a boon on several fronts, Wicker said. When loan rates plummeted, the school was able to borrow money for the $310 million stadium at 2.78 percent interest, which he said will save about $2 million annually in interest payments. Also, the project’s contractor sourced building materials immediately, before supply chains were clogged.

“At the end of the day, Covid helped us,” Wicker said. “If we had waited six months, I don’t know if we would have built the stadium. It would have been that much more expensive.”

After Monday, though, the Aztecs will wait.

The Pac-12 presidents meet later this month and will discuss where the continuing media contract negotiations stand. Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who did not attend the Final Four, has said that expansion talks are likely to follow a media rights deal.

“We have a national perception now,” Dutcher said. “I think everybody out West has always known we’ve been good. But now that we’re playing on the biggest stage, and we’re winning on the biggest stage, I think a lot like when Gonzaga made that step, they did it on a national stage. And that’s how they gained their respect.”

It is not a bad position for San Diego State to be in: going to conferences with hat in one hand and a silver medal in the other.

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