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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Cal State Bakersfield's invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference on Oct. 9 gave the Roadrunners their most significant piece in their move to NCAA Division I.
It took nearly six years as a struggling independent before a conference home was found. Now CSUB can move forward, strengthening its program and trying to build consistency.
Questions still remain.
The WAC has lost much of its luster as so many longtime members have left for other conferences. But it is still a league that offers automatic qualifying berths into NCAA Tournaments.
CSUB athletic director Jeff Konya discussed the WAC situation as it pertains to the Roadrunners along with other aspects of the athletic department in a recent interview with The Californian.
Q: In March, CSUB men's soccer accepted a bid into the Pac-12, then the WAC added men's soccer earlier this month, and CSUB will now play that sport in the WAC. Why can't CSUB men's soccer stay in the tougher Pac-12 instead of joining a weaker WAC?
A: That is a requirement after we joined the Western Athletic Conference: Any sports the WAC offers we have to field a team in the conference if we have that sport. We are very happy with our Pac-12 affiliation with wrestling. But we have to be good partners with our new conference.
Q: With the WAC having women’s tennis and indoor track for men, two sports that have recently been discontinued at CSUB, will you bring them back?
A: Not at this time. For the men, there’s more of an interest in having men’s cross country being offered by CSUB moving forward. But there’s nothing decided at this time.
Q: Has the WAC issued you an edict that you need to add any sports as a condition of membership?
A: We are under no directive that we must do “X” or we must do “Y.” When we were admitted, we were admitted carte-blanche.
Some of the other institutions that have been added ... have been required to start certain sports.
For example, I know Texas-Pan American and Chicago State are looking to field both men’s and women’s soccer moving forward. They don’t offer either at this point. And I know Utah Valley is looking at the soccer issue as well, at least from the men’s side.
Those are membership conditions with respect to those institutions that we do not have.
Q: As the WAC moves forward, are you looking at paying exit fees to your affiliate conferences should you leave any of them to move to the WAC for sports that aren’t offered now but might be in the future?
A: That’s one of the benefits of being a Division I independent. Generally affiliate memberships do not come with the same monetary stipulations that full memberships do.
Having said that, if we ever left the Western Athletic Conference for another conference, I think we’d ... face a huge exit fee.
Q: Is CSUB looking at any financial liability at all in this matter? You did say on Jan. 9 there was no fee assessed by the Pac-12 for departing in men’s soccer.
A: I think the largest one we have is leaving the West Coast Conference in softball, and that’s a few thousand dollars. It’s not cost prohibitive, in other words.
Q: You will have a WAC experience this season with baseball joining the league as an affiliate member. How helpful will that be in preparation for full WAC membership in July?
A: I think baseball will be a tremendous learning experience, not only for our department but for the community about what the Western Athletic Conference will look like in terms of competition.
There will be a massive amount of change institution-wise from this year to next. But still, we’ll be playing under that banner with 10 teams vying for that baseball championship with a squad we think will be as good as anybody else can trot onto the diamond. It should be a fun year.
Q: There has been massive change in the WAC the last couple of seasons. Many observers wonder if the WAC will survive. Are you optimistic the WAC will be OK three to five years from now?
A: Yeah, I’m optimistic because conference realignment is omnipresent and so there will opportunities for institutions to find where they feel will be their fit moving forward short-, medium- and long-term.
I have had discussions with WAC constituents and we are very optimistic about the brand and about the league we can build so it will be a landing spot for other institutions should they desire that.
Q: A year before you were invited to join the WAC, you couldn’t even get an audience with WAC officials to formally present a case for CSUB’s inclusion in that conference. After the WAC became desperate for survival with so many departures, you received an invite. Is there resentment from CSUB from the earlier snub?
A: (Chuckling) I don’t think there is any resentment. I think everything is hunky-dorey with the league.
I will say this: In this new realignment game, when a conference expands, it’s for one of two reasons, bottom line: It’s either for survival or for opportunities financially.
The days of doing it because it’s the right thing to do and philosophically: Those days are long gone. There’s too much money at stake. There are too many businessmen who have come into intercollegiate athletics the last 20 years.
It’s not the football or basketball coach becoming athletic director, which was the norm 20 to 30 years ago. Now it’s the University of Michigan hiring the CEO from Domino’s to take over as athletic director.
I don’t take it personally from what happened back in the summer of 2011. What it did do was allow us to start a relationship that allowed us to get baseball (an invitation) in the fall of 2011. Had we not had that engagement from January 2011, that wouldn’t have occurred. And now we have the benefit of starting baseball a year early in the WAC for this season.
Q: How difficult was it for CSUB to finally get an invite to the WAC?
A: It took a lot of time and effort. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s something I worked on every day. And it was tough sledding.
That’s because, for the most part, the WAC needed to define what it wanted moving forward. Did it want to sponsor football? Did it not want to sponsor football?
Back in January 2011 when I had the initial meeting with (then-WAC commissioner) Karl Benson, he shared with me a map that included CSUB in the master plan of the Western Athletic Conference, along with Utah Valley and some other properties.
From that perspective I knew there may be a fit moving forward. I knew that if it came down to it, we were an institution that would get seen. ... That is why we kept with it and kept the relationship up.
The baseball thing was big because we got another vehicle to educate the decision makers with respect to our vision.
Q: Was current interim commissioner Jeff Hurd more positive toward Bakersfield than Benson? Or the way the chips fell, would it have been the same either way?
A: I think it would have been the same either way. Both gentlemen, when they visited Bakersfield, came away impressed, I will say that.
Bakersfield looks much better in person than it does on paper.
Q: Why is that?
A: Once you’re here and you meet the people, you see the vision and you can see the progress we’re making. And you can see how active the community is, not only with our university but with the community itself. And then there’s that sense of pride. And you see some of the amenities and facilities.
This is a pretty big city and once you come in and experience it, I think you walk away with different thoughts. It’s a very solid and reputable place to be.
On paper, you pull up Bakersfield on the Internet or you just Google Bakersfield, that’s not the impression you get right away. You have to do a little bit of digging to get to all the good stuff.
And that’s really unfortunate because, as you know living here and I know living here, the perception is far, far away from the reality. That is true community-wise, and also with this institution and with our athletic program.
It was a much easier sell once the commitment was made to come to campus.
Q: Rabobank Arena: Is it mandatory to hold your WAC basketball games there?
A: It’s not mandatory but I don’t foresee other options or another opportunity.
From a media perspective: What we’re going to be asked to do as a conference member we cannot do in the Icardo Center without major infrastructure changes.
Television and hard-wiring: It’s a turn-key down at Rabobank for this stuff that’s required. It would entail having a third-party truck coming in and running wires through the Icardo lobby, and then there’s some space issues.
The one time we set that up on a trial basis (in Icardo) was the Pepperdine game last year with respect to Bright House and to see how it would work. And quite frankly, it almost overloaded our electrical system. We need to be very, very careful with the Icardo.
From that perspective and just for game atmosphere and game environment — and this is a personal opinion — why would you not want to showcase a first-class environment like Rabobank to those institutions and their personnel, and their fans coming in? Why wouldn’t you want to show the best Bakersfield has to offer in the best game environment we have? I struggle with that stuff.
Q: Low attendance is what prompted you to leave Rabobank for the Icardo Center. How to you build that up to make Rabobank a better venue?
A: We did hire Collegiate Consulting to come in and partner with us on ticket sales heading into next year. They’re going to start this year and we’re going to see what they can do with baseball and the second half of our basketball schedule. But really this is in preparation for our first full season in the Western Athletic Conference.
They have had success elevating ticket sales at other institutions. They’ve had success with Seattle University. They have Bowling Green and Purdue and UMKC (Missouri-Kansas City).
The conference thing was a big deal. And so many people said they would come out of the woodwork when this occurred. Now we’ll see if that’s really true.
Q: Those same comments were made when the move from Division II to Division I was announced, and it hasn’t happened in basketball. Of course a lot of losing seasons haven’t helped.
A: Well, we’re going to have to have success in some of our most visible sports. As polarizing as men’s basketball is, we will need to have success in men’s basketball to galvanize the troops in the community for our program overall.
And there are living, breathing examples all over America. From Dayton to Gonzaga to Butler to VCU to George Mason. They also battled the issues we’re battling right now. It took that one (NCAA) tournament appearance (for them) to change (their) culture.
Q: But won’t you have to sustain it over many seasons?
A: Well, that’s where the community savvy comes in.
Once you achieve at that level and you prove you can make it, there needs to be a buy-in from the community moving forward. To build a program, it’s going to take a commitment from everyone. And when we achieve it, it will take that level of commitment to make sure that we can achieve at the same rate. Otherwise it’s going to be inconsistent results. ...
When you have the opportunity to elevate your program, the community must take advantage of it. And the institution as well.
Q: What about sand volleyball, CSUB’s newest sports offering. Any talk of it becoming a WAC sport?
A: There’s been no talk about it. It would depend on what sports the (member) institutions themselves wanted to offer and if you could meet the critical threshold of eight teams needed for a conference to offer sand volleyball.
Q: What is the status of sand volleyball at CSUB?
A: We are going to have some matches this spring. We are going to hold tryouts for the general student population here at CSUB to compliment the student athletes from our indoor volleyball team that want to participate in that sport.
Q: What are some of the obstacles remaining for sand volleyball?
A: I know our coaches are working very hard to put the schedule together for spring competition.
We’re working with our rec center to see if we can partner to provide a sand volleyball venue not only for the intercollegiate team but for the general students.
We need to do something with the sand. There is a specific sand requirement the NCAA has with respect to hosting and having competition.