- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson isn't sitting idle during the potential seismic shift in college athletics.
Thompson is investigating if TCU would remain in the MWC instead of its original plan to join the Big East in 2012, staying in touch with the Big 12 schools that could be left behind if four of the conference's core schools bolt for the Pac-12 and speeding up the process of putting together a deal with Conference USA where the two leagues would play in football a championship game to earn a possible automatic berth to the BCS.
Thompson told ESPN.com Monday that the MWC has room for growth and is actively looking at all its options available.
"We're doing the best we can, talking to our own institutions and trying to manage this and take the pulse of the whole intercollegiate landscape," Thompson said. "This is a giant game of musical chairs to see where the music stops. We're talking to Big 12 and Big East schools. Everybody is burning up the phone lines. It's all consuming."
Thompson said he has been talking to TCU on a constant basis to get a read on the Horned Frogs as they play their final season in the MWC.
The departures of Syracuse and Pitt from the Big East to the ACC has left the Big East unstable in football with other football-playing members Connecticut and Rutgers trying to get to the ACC and West Virginia wanting a spot in the SEC, according to multiple sources.
Thompson said he was hearing and sensing that TCU's first option is to stay with the plan of going to the Big East in what could be a likely merger under a Big 12 umbrella with its remaining schools if the Big 12 loses Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to the Pac-12.
"But that's where the Mountain West comes back into play," Thompson said. "What are the numbers? Will they need to get to 12 or 14? Are they trying to get Air Force or Boise State? It would be a long way from Boise, Idaho or for Air Force's Olympic sports (to travel to Big East schools). We don't know what a reconfigured Big 12 would look like.
"BYU is still out there as an independent now, we have Hawaii as football only so there is a chance there could be different federated approaches for different sports like football," Thompson said. "Who knows what's going to happen, but TCU hasn't left yet."
The MWC will add WAC members Fresno State and Nevada for all sports next season and Hawaii for football only in 2012. The MWC added Boise State out of the WAC for this season.
Utah and BYU bolted from the MWC for this season to the Pac-12 and football independence (West Coast Conference for everything else), respectively.
Thompson said having more than 12 schools turns a conference into a consortium of teams.
"Fourteen is workable with seven-team divisions where you play six teams in one division and a few crossover teams," Thompson said. "I don't know that 16 is the end-all."
The MWC will have 10 members in 2012-13 if TCU continues with its plan to move to the Big East.
The MWC, which has tried to get an automatic qualifier to the BCS to no avail, is seriously pursuing an agreement with C-USA to have a championship game between the two leagues. The idea would need NCAA legislative approval.
"The timing is perfect to be proactive and we are exploring consolidating the two leagues in football only," Thompson said.
Thompson said a sub-committee is expected to meet on the idea next week.
"We could have 22 teams (12 from C-USA and 10 from MWC), does it need to be 24? If so then the Mountain West needs two more members," Thompson said. "We don't know if there will be five or six or seven automatic qualifiers to the BCS."
C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky confirmed through a statement that the two leagues are working on this deal.
"We find the activities involving conference realignment fascinating," said Banowsky. "We are closely watching the recent developments in other conferences, and the potential for change. At the same time, we are working on some creative consolidation strategies that have the potential for positioning our members well into the future. We are particularly intrigued by cooperative possibilities with the Mountain West."
Thompson said that the two leagues would be run independently in this scenario, but simply share a championship game.
"There are still a lot of moving parts to make this happen," said Thompson. "If we knew that this would garner an automatic bid then we'd be working a whole lot faster."
Senior writer Andy Katz covers men's college basketball for ESPN.com.