Members of the Cal State Bakersfield athletics department were all smiles Monday afternoon.
The group was introducing the Roadrunners as the latest member of the Big West Conference, and their enthusiasm was palpable in the Icardo Center conference room.
“Every day is a great day to be a 'Runner,” said Michael Lukens, director of public affairs and communications at the school. “But today is even more special.”
The Roadrunners will begin their Big West affiliation on July 1, 2018. They will begin playing on the competitive field of play within the conference effective July 1, 2020. In other words, CSUB will still compete in the Western Athletic Conference for the better part of two years before switching alliances.
Even so, the move can be considered a victory for the athletics program.
For starters, it provides the Roadrunners with greater regional affinity. Gone are conference road trips to Chicago State and University of Missouri-Kansas City. Now, Roadrunner teams will likely hop on a bus to take on in-state programs such as CSU Long Beach, CSU Fullerton, CSU Northridge, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis. Of course, there is the one far-reaching trip to Hawaii every year that teams will be required to make.
UC San Diego also joined CSUB on Monday as the Big West's newest members.
“Institutions that we’ve had long relationships with,” CSUB President Horace Mitchell said. “Institutions who are very familiar to our community. Institutions that many members of our community and fan base look forward to continuing to compete against, and have relationships with.”
In turn, local and regional recruiting could see a boost, as well as home attendance figures. Mitchell added the athletics department will reduce about $400,000 annually in travel costs.
“Our membership in the WAC has required our student-athletes to travel extensively,” Mitchell said. “The fact that all of the Big West institutions except Hawaii are in California, that will reduce the (student-athlete’s) out-of-class time and the travel time quite significantly.”
It’s been a long road for the Roadrunners. They were formerly a Division II athletics program that began transitioning to Division I in 2006. CSUB became a full Division I member in July 2010 and has competed in the WAC since July 2013. At the time, getting a league affiliation was considered a thrill for the program.
“It is a little bitter-sweet,” said CSUB Athletics Director Kenneth “Ziggy” Siegfried. “The WAC has been phenomenal to our program and our institution. They’re a big reason for our growth and our success.”
Mitchell pointed out that for a mid-major athletics institution like CSUB, being a Division I independent isn’t optimal.
“I don’t want to minimize the importance of the WAC,” he said. “We were certainly very excited about becoming members of the WAC.”
Still, Mitchell said the move to the Big West has been “a long time coming.”
“When we made the decision to move to Division I some years ago...It’s been something that we aspired to. That was, to be in the Big West Conference,” Mitchell said. “It’s the conference that’s made the most sense for us. In terms of the institutions that are involved, in terms of the geography.”
The Big West is a non-football sports league. Mitchell said CSUB’s success in men’s basketball was an important factor in gaining conference membership. CSUB qualified for the NCAA Tournament two years ago and advanced to the NIT final four last year.
The Roadrunners have won two WAC regular-season championships (one each in baseball and men’s basketball) and five WAC tournament championships (one each in baseball, men’s basketball and softball, and two in volleyball) since joining the league.
As members of the Big West, CSUB will compete in men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s track and field, women’s cross country, women’s golf, softball, baseball, women’s volleyball and women’s beach volleyball.
"Here we come," Mitchell said, as he exited to podium to a chorus of applause.