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Conference USA reloads

HOUSTON -- Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa will leave the
Western Athletic Conference to join Conference USA, presidents from
two of the schools said Friday.

In a statement, Rice president Malcolm Gillis said the school's
board of trustees gave him permission to sign the membership
agreement with Conference USA.

Tulsa president Bob Lawless said in a statement that the
school's Board of Trustees "has authorized this proposed change in
conference membership. We anticipate having a formal announcement
with Conference USA regarding its membership realignment in the
near future."

Gillis said in the league's new expected configuration, Rice,
Southern Methodist and Tulsa would join current members Texas
Christian, Houston and Tulane to form a western division of
Conference USA.

"This configuration will allow for very substantial savings in
travel costs," Gillis said. "Even more importantly, the proximity
of these schools will benefit our men and women athletic teams
through large reductions in time away from class."

Conference USA is repositioning itself as it braces for the
expected departure of Big East-bound Louisville, Cincinnati,
Marquette and DePaul.

"I've had very productive meetings this week with
representatives from Rice, SMU and the University of Tulsa
regarding the possibility of future membership in Conference USA,"
Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a brief
statement on its Web site. "We will continue our efforts in the
days and weeks ahead to complete the conference's future membership
plans. We are very excited about the potential of these
relationships and anticipate being able to make a more definitive
statement about these matters in the near future."

SMU spokesman Brad Sutton had no immediate comment
Friday.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson said he was disappointed the
schools were leaving but understood why.

"The central time zone division was important to Rice, SMU and
Tulsa and it was something that I was hoping to be able to
accomplish under the WAC banner," he told KRIV-TV in Houston.
"Obviously the WAC was not successful in doing that."

Marshall officials said Wednesday they were expecting an
invitation to join Conference USA, which loses Army as a football
member after this season.

The other Conference USA members are Southern Mississippi, UAB,
Memphis, South Florida and East Carolina.

Rice, SMU, TCU and Houston were members of the Southwest
Conference when the league disbanded in 1996. Rice, SMU and TCU
joined the WAC, with TCU eventually joining Houston in Conference
USA.

The other four members of the SWC -- Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech
and Baylor -- are members of the Big 12.