SJ Mercury News: President Calls Mountain West Move “Just the Beginning of the Journey”

Mark Purdy: San Jose State gets its revenge by finally joining the Mountain West Conference

Published by the San Jose Mercury News May 4, 2012.

By Mark Purdy

Friday’s big announcement at San Jose State was not just a celebration.

It was revenge.

With speeches and balloons in a building adjoining the football stadium, SJSU officials declared that the school has accepted an invitation to join the Mountain West Conference (MWC) in the summer of 2013.

In doing so, the Spartans will leave behind their former league, the rapidly disintegrating Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

And all this excitement led university president Mohammad Qayoumi to proclaim an Affirmation Of Possibilities (AOP).

“I’m glad these schools and teams in the Mountain West are seeing the potential for what San Jose State can bring to the conference,” Qayoumi said.

And it was especially sweet because many of those very same schools were the ones who totally dumped on and deserted the Spartans 14 years ago when the Mountain West was originally founded. Qayoumi did not add that part. So I will.

Qayoumi does remember, though. In 1996, he was a San Jose State associate vice-president in charge of facilities when the school made its first attempt to move up significantly in the college sports world. With great fanfare, SJS left the very-small-time Big West Conference to join the then-more-prestigious WAC, which included higher-profile programs such as BYU, Air Force and Colorado State.

“I was working on the Spartan Stadium expansion,” Qayoumi recalled. “I went to all the games.”

In jumping to the WAC, San Jose State was joined by several other schools to create a 16-team league that was supposed to be a “superconference.”

It never worked out that way. In 1998, eight of the 16 WAC teams — including BYU, Air Force and Colorado State — decided they were far too superior to do business with plebeian SJSU and seven of the league’s other “new” members. So those eight allegedly superior schools broke away to form the Mountain West. This left SJSU and the other “new” WAC schools to scuffle along and try to survive.

Ah, but now the tables have turned. Over the last few years, college athletic conferences have been shaken and broken as schools have ditched one league to join another — often accompanied by bitterness and espionage and financial treachery. It’s been sort of like the Prussian War, only with network television contracts and water polo.

The Mountain West has been in the thick of the tumult. Over the past two years, the league has been abandoned by 1998 charter members Utah, BYU and San Diego State. This put the Mountain West in desperate need for new schools to step in and keep the conference viable.

Hello, Spartans.

How cool, eh? Four of those Mountain West schools that once ditched and ran away from San Jose State as if it had bad breath — Colorado State, Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico — are now reaching out in need to the Spartans.

“This is just part of life,” Qayoumi said of the irony, denying any notion of reprisal.

Good strategy on his part. In truth, San Jose State athletics needs the Mountain West as much as the Mountain West needs SJSU. With the WAC falling apart on its own Prussian War front, the Spartans’ other options were not so terrific.

That’s why SJSU worked hard to gain the Mountain West invitation. Qayoumi says the idea was already on the radar when he was named president last year. Over the past several months, he’s spent one-on-one phone time lobbying the presidents of all the current Mountain West schools to gain their backing and convince them SJS is serious about upgrading facilities, fundraising and improving its basketball programs.

“We’ve got to deliver on the entire package,” Qayoumi said. “If any part of your body hurts, you’re sick.”

It surely helped, as Qayoumi lobbied the other Mountain West presidents, that he is a real college sports fan. Qayoumi played soccer as a kid in Afghanistan. And when he served as president of Cal State East Bay from 2006 to 2010, he often drove down from Hayward to attend San Jose State home football games. On a wall of the Simpkins Football Center where donors to the building’s 1994 construction are listed, Qayoumi’s name is on the plaque.

This enthusiasm for sports by a school president very much matters. It means that, as former athletic director Tom Bowen (now at Memphis after resigning last month) and interim athletic director Marie Tuite were trying to finalize the Mountain West deal, Qayoumi was along for the ride at every step.

“These last eight days have been intense,” said Tuite. “But the president has answered every email, returned every phone call, attended every meeting.” And now?

“This is just the beginning of the journey,” Qayoumi said.

Is it ever. We all know the story about San Jose State and its athletic struggles, particularly in football, the largest revenue driver. The university has so many assets — a large local alumni base, many successful graduates in Silicon Valley, a good tradition in many sports — but never has been able to translate those assets into consistent financial sustenance and home attendance.

To remain in the Mountain West, the school needs to upgrade facilities and yearly fundraising. Otherwise, it again could be left out of a party one day. Tuite was seizing the moment Friday, with so many excited alumni and fans gathered for the Mountain West announcement.

“If you’re not a donor, now is the time,” Tuite told them in a room adjoining Spartan Stadium. “And no donation is a small donation. We need all Spartans to step up and buy season tickets. Or if you already own them, you can buy more. And we just happen to have a table set up here where that can be done.”

She added pointedly: “There is no limit on how many season tickets you can purchase.”