<
>

Lee sees no harm in talking

LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee hadn't heard that the Western Athletic Conference was considering his and seven other Sun Belt Conference schools as possible replacements for the splintered league.

However, he wasn't surprised and he said Monday he'll listen.

"You'll have discussions with anyone who wants to talk just
because of the nature of things now," Lee said. "You do that as
much for courtesy as anything just so you kind of have an idea
about what's going on."

Arkansas State, New Mexico State, North Texas,
Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, Utah State, Idaho and Middle
Tennessee State -- the football-playing members of the 15-team Sun
Belt Conference -- are under consideration, WAC commissioner Karl
Benson said Monday.

Benson said the WAC wants schools that are competitive in
football and basketball, with primary emphasis on football as the
league looks to replace Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa.

The three schools announced Friday that they would accept
invitations to join Conference USA. That league is expanding in
anticipation that Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and DePaul will
join the Big East.

Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters said as friends, he and
Benson talk all the time. Waters said the Sun Belt suggested the
leagues meld into one and align football-playing divisions to make
more geographical sense.

Waters said it's obvious that the WAC didn't like that idea with
Monday's announcement.

"We'll just keep on doing what we're doing," Waters said.
"We've never create false barriers to anyone or asked people to
sign loyalty oaths. We felt like our job was to create the best
conference possible. If they like it that's good, but if they're
looking to go somewhere else we wish them well."

Lee said it was flattering that Sun Belt schools were mentioned,
but he likes how the young conference has grown. North Texas has
represented the school the past two years at the New Orleans Bowl,
beating Cincinnati from Conference USA last year.

Also, Utah State and Troy State have been added to the league.
The Aggies have started playing a league schedule this year, while
the Trojans will start doing so next year.

"As far as Sun Belt is concerned, all the schools feel very
confident and very good about the direction of where we're going
with our conference," Lee said.

The recent domino effect of conference jumping started this year
when the Atlantic Coast Conference expanded with Big East schools
Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. That has led to
speculation that the Big East will turn to Conference USA, who has
already raided the WAC.

"It all depends on if our schools are running to the WAC,"
Waters said. "If our schools are happy where they are it says
somebody else is at the end of the domino."

While Lee said he would listen, he posed a valid question for a
conference about to undergo its third transformation in the past 10
years.

"Is the WAC in any better shape than the Sun Belt?" Lee asked.

Benson said the WAC would like to have its new members by the
end of the year, adding at least two more teams for nine members.
He said the WAC might consider expanding to 12 schools to address
geographical concerns.

Benson said he has been contacted by several interested schools,
but he declined to name them.