San Diego State Intends to Leave the Mountain West – What’s Next?

San Diego State announced Friday that they intend to leave the Mountain West. How did we get here, and where are the Aztecs going?

It appears that San Diego State may be moving out of the Mountain West after months of speculation. As reported by Pete Thamel of The Athletic on Friday, the university submitted written notice to the conference, indicating that the Aztecs “intend to resign from the Mountain West Conference.” SDSU also requested a “one-month extension given unforeseen delays involving other collegiate athletic conferences beyond our control” from the conference office.

San Diego State Leaving the MWC: How’d We Get Here?

SDSU has long been rumored to join the Pac-12, but for years the Aztecs have failed to garner serious consideration. The reasons for this extend as far back as 1960 and largely have nothing to do with sports.

The Donahoe Act

San Diego State has long been the speculated acquisition for the Pac-12 following the departures of UCLA and USC to the Big Ten in 2024. Even before that, the Aztecs have been looking for a place in the West Coast’s premier conference for decades.

However, California’s 1960 Donahoe Act has served as the largest obstacle to Pac-12 membership. The Act separates University of California schools (like Cal and UCLA) from Cal State schools (like SDSU or Fresno State), with the former focused on research and the latter focused on training teachers.

San Diego State President Malcolm Love eventually fought for the Act to include a clause allowing state schools to award “joint doctoral degrees in selected fields,” which is how SDSU has risen to an R2 institution as of 2021.

However, the passing of the Act inherently created a power imbalance, with the UC system holding most of the cards. And so, until this year, UCLA, Cal, and Stanford collectively kept SDSU out of the Pac-12 based on academic merit.

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R2 vs. R1

Every school in the Pac-12 is an R1 institution, defined as Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity. This prestige has long been an informal requirement to join the conference and has often been cited as the primary reason why Western football programs like Boise State or BYU weren’t admitted into the Pac-12.

SDSU is currently an R2 institution, but the university has a strategic planning place with the goal of achieving R1 status by the fall of 2025. As part of this plan, SDSU has established partnerships with five UC schools to award joint doctoral degrees, including four of the five universities in Southern California (with UCLA being the exception).

In 2022, the Aztecs secured $164.5 million in grant funding, setting a school record by more than $20 million.

San Diego State’s Rise Answers ‘Why Now?’ Among Doubters

If SDSU isn’t expected to become an R1 institution until 2025, why would the Pac-12 be interested in them now when they haven’t been in the past?

Outside of the classroom, SDSU has become one of the West Coast’s premier sports programs. The football program has consistently performed well in the Mountain West and has had a decent record of 2-3 against Pac-12 schools in the past three seasons.

The Aztecs recently completed the $310 million Snapdragon Stadium, a state-of-the-art football facility, along with a redevelopment project in the surrounding Mission Valley neighborhood. The basketball program thrived under Steve Fisher and even made the NCAA title game under his protege Brian Dutcher. Men’s soccer is already affiliated with the Pac-12, and other sports like baseball, softball, track and field, and golf have consistently achieved good results.

There’s also a more straightforward reason why bigger conferences are interested in SDSU: They need them.

For the Pac-12, adding SDSU fills the void in the Southern California market left by the departure of UCLA and USC. It also adds prestige to the revenue sports and, perhaps most importantly, helps keep the conference strong as it finalizes a new media deal amidst rumors of interest from the Big Ten and Big 12 in the remaining Pac-12 members.

In this regard, it might be somewhat easier to convince academic powerhouses like Cal and Stanford to relax their R1 requirements, even if only slightly, since SDSU is on track to achieve that milestone within two years.

As for the Big 12, the other rumored suitor, the answer is simple: If they can poach SDSU from the Pac-12, they can deliver a final blow. Without additional member schools, the Pac-12 could end up with a disadvantageous media deal in the current negotiations.

There have already been rumors of Washington, Oregon, Cal, and Stanford flirting with the Big Ten if things go sour. Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado are high on the Big 12’s list of priorities if the Pac-12 mishandles its situation.

Essentially, Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff must play his cards right. If they lose SDSU to another conference, they might find themselves without leverage when other members want to leave.

Where Does San Diego State End Up?

Well, nowhere for now, of course. The Mountain West isn’t likely to let the Aztecs go easily, especially not on the terms the university reportedly wants. Currently, SDSU has a hard deadline of June 30th to declare whether or not they’ll remain Mountain West members for 2024. They’ve requested an additional month to decide without incurring an extra financial penalty.

Here are their options.

The Pac-12

This is the obvious choice. analyst Adam Thompson recently released odds on the next Pac-12 expansion team, with SDSU leading the pack at +200.

The request for an extra month to decide, along with the wording of the request, seems like a clear nod to the Pac-12 media negotiations. SDSU doesn’t have a formal invitation to join the conference yet, but it could indicate that an agreement is imminent, and they need until the end of July to negotiate terms with the Mountain West for an exit strategy.

The Big 12

Without an official offer, there’s no guarantee that SDSU is specifically aiming for a Pac-12 invitation. There are two sides to a negotiation, and asking for a month of flexibility rather than a longer period may also be a message to Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff: Time is running out.

If the Pac-12 fails to reach a media rights deal in the next month, SDSU could potentially explore joining the Big 12, where Commissioner Brett Yormark has already been proactive in replacing Texas and Oklahoma.

Sit Tight (for now)

SDSU’s request for an extra month doesn’t necessarily mean they are determined to leave. It could be seen as an opportunity to reevaluate their relationship with the Mountain West. If the conference agrees, the Aztecs would be free to explore other options.

However, the Mountain West could also decline, introducing new financial obstacles to prevent SDSU’s departure to a Power Five conference. The Aztecs could then assess the offers they receive and decide whether pursuing any of them is worthwhile, especially considering the ongoing Pac-12 vs. Big 12 dynamics.

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Who Joins Them?

Assuming SDSU does leave the Mountain West, they will likely need a partner to balance the numbers in either conference. Who else could be in the market for a conference change? Here are a few possibilities:

SMU Mustangs

The Mustangs have also been strongly linked to the Pac-12, with projecting them at +400 to be the next team to join the conference. SMU’s profile has steadily risen, primarily due to their football success, and they hold a strong presence in the Dallas market.

UNLV Rebels

Similar to SMU, UNLV has a historic program in a revenue sport (basketball) that has experienced a resurgence. They opened a new football complex in 2019 and are the primary college sports option in the thriving Las Vegas market. The Rebels also achieved R1 status in 2021.

Colorado State Rams

While not a football powerhouse, the Rams are one of six R1 institutions west of the Central time zone (the others being UNLV, UTEP, New Mexico, Utah State, and Hawaii). Adding Colorado State would revive the Colorado-Colorado State rivalry and satisfy the Pac-12’s longstanding academic requirements.

Fresno State Bulldogs

Although it may be a less likely option, the Bulldogs have gained momentum as a football program in recent years, led by notable names such as current New Orleans Saints QB Jake Haener and current Washington head coach Kalen DeBoer. Fresno State has plans for athletic facility upgrades pending a Fresno County tax measure likely to appear on the local ballot in spring 2024. Fans in the Fresno area have long desired a seat.