photo courtesy of Rick Yeatts
Q&A With SBC Commissioner Karl Benson
Q & A with Newly-Appointed Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson
Immediately following the announcement that Karl Benson would become the new commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference, the Green Gang had a chance to sit down with him to discuss his new role, the changing landscape of college athletics and the University of North Texas.
Green Gang: What made the Sun Belt Conference job an inviting proposition for you?
Benson: As I really began to look at the opportunity and started to study, it became very clear that the Sun Belt Conference was not the same league that it was five years ago and certainly not the same league that it was 10 years ago. The league has matured in many ways and is on the verge of doing some great things. I think there is a tremendous upside to the conference and, at a time when there is so much uncertainty within the college sports landscape, I believe that the Sun Belt is positioned well to take advantage of that uncertainty.
Green Gang: What is your first order of business when you take over at the Sun Belt?
Benson: The issue of conference realignment will certainly be at the top of the list. Knowing what is being considered with the Mountain West and Conference USA merger I know that the Sun Belt needs to be proactive rather than reactive and I would hope that we would put together a very quick plan of action in place regarding conference expansion for the Sun Belt.
Green Gang: Do you anticipate any significant changes to the operation of the league office, for example, staff responsibilities, office relocation, etc.?
Benson: That is always a consideration when a new commissioner comes in. It is my responsibility to evaluate the overall operation and get feedback from the membership as to what we do well and what we need to improve on, so that will happen very early in the process. I think evaluating the location of the conference office is always something that takes place, but I certainly am not going into the job with any preconceived ideas regarding conference headquarter location. New Orleans is a great destination and it has served the Sun Belt Conference well, but to ignore the idea of seeing if there is a better location would be negligent on my part.
Green Gang: Coming from a conference that has seen its share of teams leaving to join other leagues, do you think there a threat of the Sun Belt losing schools to other leagues and what can be done to prevent that?
Benson: The fact that there may be Sun Belt members, including North Texas, that may be on the list of Conference USA-Mountain West expansion demonstrates that there are Sun Belt members which are valuable and will become even more valuable. It is a testament to the growth of the Sun Belt. On the other hand, there are FBS schools in the Sun Belt footprint that now may possibly look to this league as an attractive alternative. That will be an early order of business to not only identify those schools but to also determine whether or not there is interest among those schools to join us.
Green Gang: Are there enough FBS teams to sustain 11 stable conferences? If so, is the division between AQ conferences and non-AQ conferences becoming greater with recent conference expansion?
Benson: The financial gap between the AQ conferences and non-AQ conferences has no question increased tremendously in the last 12-24 months. The market place has driven that and that is out of our control. However, the competitive gap that has been in place among the five non-AQ conferences has really decreased in that time. The Mountain West and the WAC over the last five years have been in the number one and number two spot in football rankings and Conference USA jumped to the number one spot this year for the first time. The Sun Belt has made significant improvement in its football rankings. The erosion that has occurred with the Mountain West, Conference USA and the WAC will continue to bring those leagues closer together to the point that it may be negligible. The Sun Belt has a tremendous opportunity to take its place in the upper tier of the non-AQ leagues. We have to face the fact that the big five conferences are out there by themselves. On the football side there is no question that the Sun Belt has a chance to establish itself as one of those top non-AQ conferences.
Green Gang: It seems regionalization in college athletics has gone out the window. Do you think the geographic footprint of the Sun Belt works?
Benson: I think it is really one of the strengths of the league. I would hope that the geography that exists would also make it attractive to some other FBS schools that are currently in the footprint. It could also be a landing spot for some of those FCS schools that are in a position to make the commitment to become FBS. I know that it was my experience in the WAC that when teams joined our league, they became better overall programs. With what is already in place and as the Sun Belt grows, I would think that it would be an attractive place for other FBS teams to be.
Green Gang: Bowl tie-ins and television contracts are two big issues in the Sun Belt. How do you think you can help this league develop better deals for both?
Benson: The bowl landscape and the types of opportunities are going to change once again after the 2013 season. Negotiations to extend existing bowl agreements or to secure new agreements will begin in the coming months. I think that the two bowls that are currently affiliated with the Sun Belt are ideal, both being in the footprint. To secure a third automatic bowl tie somewhere in Florida or the south would be a priority. With everything being reworked, I suspect there will be some opportunities for the Sun Belt to gain another bowl game. As for television, the ESPN agreement that is in place could be re-negotiated if there is a change in membership. On the other hand, I think the Sun Belt needs to look at all of the new ways to distribute their events with new media. As the Sun Belt begins a new era, I'm hoping that we can be on the leading edge of new broadcast methods. We all know the power of ESPN, but we need to go beyond the traditional and look at some of the non-traditional ways to broadcast our events.
Green Gang: Coming from a league that has had tremendous historical success in basketball, what will it take to get the Sun Belt back to a top 10-15 league and become more than a one-team league in the NCAA tournament ?
Benson: It is an important piece of conference success. As much as the Sun Belt has dedicated time and resources on the football side - and those efforts have produced positive outcomes - we need to turn our attention to the basketball piece. We need to provide similar resources to our basketball teams. Scheduling is a critical part and every conference outside the big six faces those same issues. I think the Sun Belt should not be in the 15-20 range for conference RPI rankings, it should always be in the 8-12 range and there isn't any reason that can't be done. The revenue that is associated with the NCAA tournament and how that revenue is distributed makes it imperative that you have to have multiple teams in the NCAA tournament and you have to win games in the NCAA tournament. The Sun Belt should be a multiple-bid conference.
Green Gang: It has been well documented that North Texas was on your radar for WAC expansion over the past several years. What made North Texas attractive as a university and more specifically as an athletics department?
Benson: It goes all the way back to 1999, which was the first time that I was on the North Texas campus. I was on the campus a year ago at this time, trying to convince North Texas to come to the WAC. I've seen the new stadium, I've seen the unbelievable growth of the university. To look at the University of North Texas today and to see the 30,000-plus students, the new stadium, the commitment that starts at the top with President Rawlins, the fact that there has been continuity with Rick Villarreal, and the fact that it is 35 miles from Dallas and Ft. Worth, those are all components that make it attractive. As I said before, North Texas has been attractive to the WAC for the last 10 years and is currently on the radar for Conference USA. It is one of the premiere programs in the Sun Belt and I'm looking forward to finally being able to work with Rick and President Rawlins and the outstanding group of coaches that are there. Everyone always talks about "Who is the next Boise State" and I can honestly say why not North Texas?