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.
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press
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