ARLINGTON -- After spending almost 50 years in the same conference, it took only a month for UT Arlington to find a new athletics home.
UTA is joining the Western Athletic Conference effective July 1, 2012.
University President James Spaniolo called Thursday "a happy day" and "an historic occasion" for the school at an on-campus news conference to announce the move.
"We are honored to be a member, and this is a tremendous opportunity for us," Spaniolo said. "And it's significant recognition of the growing national prominence of our university and its athletic program."
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Spaniolo said the athletics move fits in with his school's initiative to become a national research institution.
"Tier One institutions are Tier One across the board," Spaniolo said, "and that includes athletic teams and student-athletes who compete at the highest levels on the field, on the court and in the classroom."
Thursday's announcement capped a jam-packed month of talks between the conference and school.
Athletic director Pete Carlon said he first called WAC commissioner Karl Benson in February to inquire about the possibility of UTA filling recent vacancies incurred by the conference. Carlon said the two had a second informal conversation in April, but serious discussions did not begin until June 16.
Benson, who said he focused completely on addressing the conference's football needs through May, visited the campus June 29 and the WAC's nine university presidents voted unanimously July 5 to extend UTA an invitation. On Thursday afternoon, after receiving approval from the University of Texas System board of regents, the school officially accepted the invitation.
The move to the WAC will come shortly after UTA opens College Park Center, a $78 million, 7,000-seat special events center that will be the home of the Mavericks' basketball and volleyball teams.
Benson said the campus exceeded expectations when he visited two weeks ago.
"What we saw, what we evaluated, the assets that UTA brings to the Western Athletic Conference," Benson said, "really made it a very easy decision and pretty much a slam dunk for us once we got into it."
UTA will compete one more year in the Southland Conference, which formed in 1963 with UTA as a charter member.
The Southland is based in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. The WAC has a much broader geographical reach and is a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A). By the time UTA begins play, the 10-team conference also will consist of Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, Idaho, San Jose State and Utah State along with recent additions UT San Antonio, Texas State, the University of Denver and Seattle University.
Carlon said joining a conference that stretches from Louisiana to the West Coast will increase travel costs, but that the increase will be offset by revenues gained by joining an FBS conference.
"The revenue distribution from the WAC is significantly more," Carlon said. "That will more than cover the cost of dues and our other costs as well."
UTA could be subject to a $300,000 exit fee for leaving the Southland, and entry fee for joining the WAC is $600,000.
In their presentation to the UT System regents, school officials said the Southland Conference fees would be paid for with athletic department funds, institutional funds and revenue from the new College Park Center. Carlon said WAC entry fees are payable by whatever method the university chooses within three years and cited the increased revenue from joining the conference as evidence that the entry fee will not be a burden.
The WAC's invitation did not include any condition of UTA re-establishing a football program. The school has not fielded a football team since 1985 and will be one of three conference members without football, along with the University of Denver and Seattle.
The possibility of bringing back football is a persistent topic for UTA, and while Spaniolo and Carlon said the first priority is with opening College Park Center and establishing successful programs in the WAC, there were no attempts to deflect questions about football.
"We have not nor will we ever close the door to football," Spaniolo said. "But it's not on the immediate horizon."
What is on the immediate horizon for UTA is a step up into a more nationally recognized conference.
Carlon called it an understatement to say those associated with UTA athletics are "thrilled" with the move.
"Joining the WAC places UT Arlington in a new era of collegiate sports," he said. "The WAC gives our university instant recognition across the country and moves us from regional athletics competition to a truly national stage."
David Thomas, 817-390-7697