A sit down question-and-answer session with New Mexico State University President Barbara Couture on NMSU athletics, and Aggie football.
Sun-News: Do you think New Mexico State University should continue to compete on the Division I-A level?
Barbara Couture: Absolutely ... Division I says a lot about the standing of a school, in terms of its athletic competition as well as in other areas of competition. Whether or not those other areas of competition are directly related to the athletics program. Division I also has a standing when it comes to state funding, so it's an extremely important parity issue, I think, for a school within the state to have that Division I standing. Those are statistical facts that are borne out when you take a look at how Division I schools fare historically with regard to state support.
SN: Is dropping the football program an option?
BC: This is certainly not something we are looking at at this time.
SN: Is going to the FCS level an option?
BC: We are right now committed to assuring a good home for New Mexico State University as a Division I, FBS player.
SN: Is going independent an option?
BC: We're looking at all options, and as some get open to us, we'll explore those, as some get eliminated from us, we'll (eliminate) those. As I said, the most obvious option for us right now, and it should be, quite frankly, where we are in the region, is the Mountain West Conference.
SN: Do you know to what level the University of New Mexico supported New Mexico State University being in the same league?
BC: I've had some very good and friendly conversations with the University of New Mexico. All of the conferences I think are still in quite a bit of flux in terms of realignment. My position right now, as both of president of NMSU and I'm also president of the WAC, I've been looking both at the future of the WAC and also the future of New Mexico State University. We have two directions we have to look at as a university, one, our future in the WAC; and two, if that doesn't appear to be the best future for us, a future elsewhere. And, certainly, the Mountain West Conference is one that we would need to take a look at. I have no reason to believe the University of New Mexico wouldn't be supportive of us. I certainly have received good support from President Schmidly when I talk to him. I think it makes all kinds of sense for New Mexico State University and UNM to be in the same conference and right now, the conference that has more football-playing schools in it is the Mountain West.
SN: Have you had any conversations with UTEP's president and/or athletics director within the past month concerning conference realignment?
BC: I have talked, not with the athletics director - presidents, not that we don't talk to athletics directors, but when we do talk about issues like this, go president to president. And I have had that conversation with (UTEP President) Diana Natalicio at Conference USA. Of course, given the situation the WAC is in presently, certainly New Mexico State University is exploring all of its options and I have talked with her. She has offered her support, she understands our situation and I probably will be talking with her again.
SN: There's a wide-ranging perception that those schools have blocked NMSU's inclusion into their conferences. You haven't gotten that impression?
BC: I've learned one thing as a university administrator is that perceptions often have long-standing historical precedence. I think there has been long-standing historical precedence where those kinds of....blockages, that was your word, may have been in fact conversations of the past. I'm not going to say all three of these schools are necessarily in an extreme partnership now, but think we do try to be supportive of one another.
SN: Did you ever have or request a face-to-face presentation with the Mountain West Conference?
BC: Not to date.
SN: Why not?
BC: We're a member of the Western Athletic Conference right now and we still are a member of the Western Athletic Conference. We still are working hard to ensure that we would have a good, strong presence in that conference and to strengthen that conference, that's what the remaining presidents of the Western Athletic Conference are doing. That being said, New Mexico State has made some explorations with other conferences and we know there's still quite a bit of change in the wings. We have not yet made presentations. It requires mutual agreement to have such a presentation.
SN: Were you aware that Texas State made a face-to-face presentation with the Sun Belt (Conference) and did New Mexico State make or request a face-to-face presentation with the Sun Belt?
BC: We have made overtures to the Sun Belt. The Sun Belt, I think, has not completed its program of the shape of its particular conference. We certainly would welcome an opportunity to talk with the Sun Belt as we would with the Mountain West, or with Conference USA, while we are still working hard to strengthen the position of the WAC. We are leaving all of those positions open at this point.
SN: Prior to conference realignment what were the plans and timeline for facilities upgrades in athletics and have those plans been altered or accelerated?
BC: We had, of course, quite an extensive renovation of the (football) stadium not too long ago. And we're happy with that, and of course we've had improvements to our soccer field. We have a list of other minor improvements that we're going to be taking care of this summer. We do have some long-range plans for additional improvements to our (football) stadium. I've had the opportunity to visit other (football) stadiums in the WAC. I think we have a....very comparable stadium to other stadiums in the WAC. I actually read one rating of stadiums recently, it was I think on a blog post recently rated our stadium as being more attractive in many ways than either UNM's or the Sun Bowl's. We have certainly adequate capacity here and we have, I think, a very good sports venue for any of the competitive FBS schools.
SN: We've heard this before - athletics is the front porch of a university. How do you think your front porch looks at the moment?
BC: I think the Aggie athletic teams can be extremely proud of the last couple of years of progress at New Mexico State University. We had more Academic (All-)Americans than any other team in the WAC last fall. I think we'll come in second this spring for the number of Academic All-Americans. We've won two (WAC men's) basketball championships in three years. Our men's baseball team looks to be nationally ranked, our women's basketball team is getting stronger. Golf has always been a very strong, competitive sport for us. Of course, women's volleyball stands up to teams that are the best in the country. I think it's an extremely strong mid-major program that does very, very well on a very modest budget.
SN: If the football team did not find a home, would you consider making a change at the top of the athletics department?
BC: I think that the situation that we have here at New Mexico State University in regard to conference realignment is not of our making. It's not of the making of the leadership of our athletics department. Right now, the situation that (is) creating conference realignment now is really not being driven by the strength of athletic programs .... at all, but rather by the strength of television markets and the ability to attract external revenue. When you look pound-for-pound at the actual achievements of New Mexico State University'a athletic programs, on every indicator, those programs have been getting stronger and better. Add to that that we have....the integrity of the programs and the behavior of our students, their academic progress, a very strong and a very clean program thanks to the good work of our coaches and our athletic director, I think we have a lot to be proud about in terms of the leadership of the athletic program. As I said, the conference realignment issues really are due to external issues that those leaders can't really control, such as our television market, and frankly the actual location of the school in an area that makes our travel a challenge.
SN: Have you or are you going to ask Gov. Susana Martinez for help in this project?
BC: I think it's very important that the Governor be aware of the situation, and certainly we will be sure that she is.
SN: Is she aware of it?
BC: We're certainly assuring that she will be.
SN: Senator (Tom) Udall, Senator (Steve) Pearce, Senator (Jeff) Bingaman, could they be of assistance to you?
BC: I think the way that our congressional leaders at the national level might be involved in this is probably not necessarily going to help us at the regional level with our current issue of needing to be placed within a specific region. Certainly, the more of our legislative leaders that understand that this could be an important issue for New Mexico State University, I think that always can be helpful in terms of support.
SN: What was the plan when conference realignment started really rolling a couple of years ago? How did we get to this point and did you ever anticipate this being a possibility, where NMSU stands today?
BC: I think two years ago, as a member of the WAC, the WAC was also working on its own efforts at realignment. You'll recall the WAC added some non-football-playing schools to strengthen our basketball and other olympic-sport alignments. And we were also looking at the potential of adding some more FBS schools. A number of external factors occurred that made things change dramatically in other directions .... Sort of a domino effect, as a couple of teams leave and go elsewhere, our prospects have changed as well. And of course we now had a commissioner in the WAC (Karl Benson) who has gone to the Sun Belt, so that's changed the dynamic dramatically too. Did we know that the landscape was changing? Yes we did. Had we been thinking about multiple ways to address that? Yes we have. Among them are adding additional FBS schools, even potentially adding invitations to FCS schools that may want FBS membership, which over the next 10 years may be limited for FCS schools given the new conference alignments. And looking even, to the potential of the WAC being an all-olympic sports team (league) with the remaining football members having alliance memberships perhaps in other conferences. So we've been looking at all these factors over the last couple of years.
SN: What are you and your administration doing to make NMSU more attractive for these conferences that are seeking members?
BC: In the case of New Mexico State, I think the overall strength of our athletic programs and the strength of the university, in themselves are attractive to other conferences. The difficulty we have is in our travel relationships. We will consider some ways that we might be able to make those travel relationships more attractive to others. With regard to the facilities, at least as they currently stand .... it has not been brought to our attention that the facilities that we offer here at New Mexico State University are a major drawback to this institution. We would like to see some improvements. Our football stadium is, like I said, a very attractice stadium, but there are some improvements that certainly can be made to that and we're thinking about that in our overall capital planning.
SN: Is there anything being done to assure that the University of Seattle and the University of Denver are retained in the WAC?
BC: I was on a phone call with all of the remaining WAC presidents just a week ago and my understanding is .... those two schools are committed to the WAC.