July 20, 2024
The Spartans are secure in the Mountain West, at least for the time being. If the conference gets raided, the calculation changes.

As two of the Bay Area’s major college football schools scramble for a home following the collapse of the Pac-12, the third sits back in reasonable comfort, watching the chaos unfold.

Will San Jose State be OK once the last domino falls from this round of conference realignment?

“Absolutely,” athletic director Jeff Konya said.

There’s a scenario in which the Spartans are confronted by a dire future. But that moment is several chess moves away and may not ever materialize. Conference realignment is nothing if not fluid, vulnerable to forces unseen and unexpected.

“If this were a question in 2014-16, during the acclimation period into the Mountain West,” Konya added, “I wouldn’t feel as strongly.”

Since those lean years, the Spartans have made impressive strides on multiple fronts.

The football program has two recent bowl appearances (2020 and 2022) under coach Brent Brennan. Men’s basketball just won 20 games under Tim Miles. The baseball and women’s soccer programs just won Mountain West championships.

Meanwhile, the build-out of the South Campus athletic facilities, including the $60 million (estimated) Spartan Athletic Center, is attractive to fans, donors and recruits alike. Ticket sales are up. Membership in the One Spartan Nation fundraising program has soared. And SJSU’s location in a major media market remains unchanged.

“The bet on SJSU has always been the potential on campus,” Konya said, “and I do think we are starting to realize that. There’s a groundswell of momentum to reach our potential.”

Also, the Mountain West appears unified after a fragile summer in which San Diego State danced with the Pac-12. Commissioner Gloria Nevarez has pledged to aggressively pursue expansion if the opportunity presents itself. Depending on the next realignment moves, two Pac-12 schools, Washington State and Oregon State, could be available.

But SJSU’s neighbors are a cautionary tale. Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Cal chancellor Carol Christ woke early on the morning of Aug. 4 expecting to join their seven peers in signing a contract that would secure the Pac-12’s future.

Instead, Washington and Oregon stopped the meeting before it began, revealing that they planned to join USC and UCLA in the Big Ten next summer.

That forced Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to secure lifelines in the Big 12, leaving the 108-year-old Pac-12 with four remaining members: Stanford, Cal, WSU and OSU.

The next move depends on the Cardinal and Bears, who are desperately trying to secure invitations to the ACC. If they succeed, the ‘Pac-4’ will dissolve and leave Washington State and Oregon State with little choice but to seek salvation in the Mountain West.

“Bigger is better in this game right now,” Konya said. “There are things you can do when you’re bigger. But you don’t want to get bigger just for the sake of getting bigger. The programs have to fit within the culture of the organization. There are a lot of factors to consider.”

Do Washington State and Oregon State fit?

“They bring a lot to the table.”

With the Northwest duo on board, the Mountain West would become a 16-team conference with no existential threats on the horizon.

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But if Stanford and Cal don’t secure an escape hatch to the ACC, the calculation changes. One option — perhaps their preferred option — would be to link arms with Washington State and Oregon State and rebuild the Pac-12.

The project assuredly would require the quartet to extend membership offers to the top football schools in the Mountain West with San Diego State atop the list, perhaps followed by Fresno State and Boise State.

The statement of unity offered by the Mountain West presidents earlier this month has little value in the back rooms and secret channels of realignment.

At that point, the situation gets tricky for SJSU, which would not be on the shortlist of schools pursued by an aggressive, expansionist Pac-12.

Stripped of its most valuable football programs, the Mountain West would lose stature and perhaps its financial foundation. The media contract with Fox and CBS expires in the summer of 2026. Why would the networks renew their agreement with a depleted league?

And so the Spartans sit back, cautiously optimistic but well aware that the landscape could change swiftly and mercilessly.

After all, the most successful athletic department in major college sports — Stanford — is scrambling for a home.

“I’ve been in college athletics for 25 years, and the one constant is conference realignment,” Koyna said. “Conferences expand for survival or opportunity. Within that, you have to do what’s right by your institution.”