Tahlequah Daily Press

Sports

April 2, 2013

Golden Hurricane leaving Conference USA

IRVING, Texas — Conference USA will add Western Kentucky and new coach Bobby Petrino at the same time the league’s most recent football champion plans to leave.

Commissioner Britton Banowsky said Monday that Western Kentucky will officially join C-USA on July 1, 2014. That will be after ex-Arkansas coach Petrino’s first season in charge of the Hilltoppers.

That is also when Tulsa, the defending Conference USA football champion, is expected to join a migration to the league that’ll no longer be known as the Big East.

A person familiar with the decision said Tulsa was planning to announce Tuesday that it will join the Big East football schools in their soon-to-be renamed league in 2014. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because an announcement had not been made.

The renamed Big East will have 12 members in 2015 when Navy joins for football only. Among that group will be seven ex-Conference USA teams: Tulsa, Tulane, East Carolina, Central Florida, SMU, Houston and basketball power Memphis.

As all the teams leave, Conference USA has been moving constantly to find replacements, often from the Sun Belt. Western Kentucky is the latest addition.

When the Hilltoppers officially move, they will be the fifth team in a year to switch from the Sun Belt Conference to C-USA.

Current Sun Belt members Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic, Florida International and North Texas are leaving for Conference USA this summer, a year before the Hilltoppers re-join them.

“The tradition of the university and its athletics success is truly remarkable,” Banowsky said of Western Kentucky.

“The men’s basketball program has made seven NCAA appearances since 2000, the women’s basketball program has advanced to three NCAA Final Fours and football went to a bowl game last season in just its fourth year in the BCS.”

The Golden Hurricane, who joined C-USA in 2005 after leaving the WAC, won last year’s football championship in the league and recently won the women’s basketball tournament title while hosting both hoops tourneys.

Last week, Tulsa hired Derrick Gragg as its new athletic director. He replaces Ross Parmley, who was fired amid gambling allegations.

Conference USA will have 14 football teams for the 2013 season, even with current teams SMU, Houston, UCF and Memphis leaving in three months. Tulane and East Carolina have previously announced they’d be leaving in 2014, the same time as Tulsa.

Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson said Western Kentucky’s decision “is not a surprise given the communication that I have had with university officials and the rampant speculation over the past several months.”

Benson said he has long understood the implications of the move and that the Sun Belt has been preparing for this possibility for quite some time.

The Sun Belt last week added Appalachian State and Georgia Southern as all sports members and Idaho and New Mexico State as football-only members.

Petrino was hired in December as Western Kentucky’s new football coach. That came nine months after he was fired by Arkansas following an accident in which the coach was injured while riding a motorcycle with his mistress — and newly hired football program employee — as a passenger.

Petrino took over at WKU for Willie Taggart, who left to become South Florida’s coach. Western Kentucky gave Petrino a four-year deal.

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