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Missouri State says it’s ‘time to think big and be bold’ with leap to Conference USA

Wyatt D. Wheeler
Springfield News-Leader

Missouri State celebrated its upcoming new era of college athletics when it held a formal press conference detailing its impending move to Conference USA.

The Bears, who have competed in the Missouri Valley Conference since 1990, will join CUSA as a full-league member before the 2025-26 season. The school announced its transition to the FBS conference on Friday morning.

Missouri State president Clif Smart, who will retire this summer, along with athletics director Kyle Moats and Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod laid out why Missouri State was chosen while expressing excitement for the 12-team league's future.

"The time has come for us to think big and be bold," Moats told a packed PRIME Overtime Club at Great Southern Bank Arena. "We can't wait to get started."

More:Missouri State to Conference USA: AD on football coach Ryan Beard's future with new league

Missouri State continues to promise that the move to Conference USA will be 'budget neutral'

The most scrutinized part of Missouri State's jump to Conference USA involves its budget as its administration continues to preach it will be a "budget neutral" decision for the ongoing university operating budget.

Smart said that while Missouri State has spent around $31 million on athletics, it figures to spend $36 million once the school joins CUSA full-time come July 2025. According to the USA Today NCAA Finances Database for Fiscal Year 2022, a $36 million budget would put it near the top of the league.

Smart said the additional money would go toward the extra 22 scholarships that will go to football players, personnel, travel and funding student-athletes including the cost of attendance and Alston money for most athletes. At the same time, Smart said the school expects an additional $5 million of revenue through football buy games, Conference USA's media rights allocation, reallocated fee revenue and additional scholarships.

Missouri State President Clif Smart talks abut the universities decision to join Conference USA and leave the Missouri Valley Conference during a press conference at Great Southern Bank Arena on Monday, May 13, 2024.

Moats doesn't expect subsidies from the university to change much when the school has allocated between $16 million and a little south of $18.4 million for the last six reported fiscal years with the COVID-19 season's budget being the one outlier.

"We're going to spend what we have," Moats said. "We're not going to overspend. We're going to drastically increase when we can but some of these costs have one-time costs. Once we get those out, then some of those monies can go back in too. I think everybody worries about money. If we were at the point where we couldn't do it, then we wouldn't have done it. We feel good about where that's at."

Plaster Stadium upgrades are coming but Missouri State isn't 100% sure how they're going to be paid for

Scenes from the Missouri State Bears home opener at Plaster Stadium against Lincoln University on Thursday, Sep. 6, 2018. The Bears won 52-24.

Several phases to upgrading football facilities to be more in line with what FBS programs and Conference USA expect are coming to Plaster Stadium and surrounding facilities. It was a part of Missouri State's pitch and different plans to position itself toward receiving an invitation to the league.

Smart said the first phase will be a $4 million locker room project and that the school has already allocated about $1.5 million. Moats added the project will also include a weight room and that the money needs to come through fundraising.

More:A Springfield attorney will give $5 million to Missouri State to join CUSA. Here’s why.

The second phase, which MSU isn't sure what will happen yet, will be with the west side bleachers opposite the student section. Moats said the suites need to be upgraded among other items that need to meet standards. A third phase will be an upgrade for the press box.

"President Williams knows that and we've had that conversation," Moats said. "We've got to figure out the financial part of what we're going to do to help the stadium because (CUSA) expects something to be done. We expected and knew going into it that it would be our biggest challenge. We're hoping that this kind of commitment from us helps with our fans to say 'We're going to have to step in a little bit.' We'll see how that goes but that's a big question."

What Kyle Moats thinks about Conference USA as a basketball league

Missouri State Athletics Director Kyle Moats talks abut the universities decision to join Conference USA and leave the Missouri Valley Conference during a press conference at Great Southern Bank Arena on Monday, May 13, 2024.

Missouri State has traditionally been known as a basketball school, but the change in conference shows a new dedication to football that was realized when the Bears found success under former football coach Bobby Petrino.

Conference USA men's basketball is considered a weaker league compared to the Missouri Valley Conference, multiple metrics suggest. Both have been largely one-bid leagues in recent years with CUSA not receiving multiple bids since 2012. Women's basketball is a bit stronger in the CUSA than in the Valley, according to similar metrics.

More:Q&A with Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod: Why did CUSA add Missouri State?

"Regardless of what league we're in, if we qualify for the NCAA Tournament, I don't think anybody cares, right?" Moats said. "If we're going to the NCAA Tournament, that's what folks want. They want to win.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Valley and it's really good in basketball. You've got a lot of privates that spend a lot of money on basketball.

"But that's not going to be us, necessarily, because we're going to be more broad-based. But that being said, if we get the automatic qualifier and win the Conference USA championship, I think our folks will be very happy with that and I think we certainly have a great chance to do that."

Richard "Biff" Williams, a finalist for the Missouri State University president job, answers questions at a forum in the Plaster Student Union auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024.

Incoming Missouri State President Dr. Richard 'Biff' Williams was heavily involved in CUSA discussions after he got the job

With Smart retiring at the end of June, another new era will come to Missouri State when Dr. Richard "Biff" Williams takes over the university's top job to cap off one of the more transformational few months the school has seen in quite some time.

Smart assured the audience that Williams is fully on board with Missouri State's move to Conference USA and was heavily involved in discussions with the league since he was picked as the successor in early March. That includes several meetings and presentations the school's had with its new league.

"President Williams helped us get over the finish line," Moats said. "His experiences and relationships across the country were critical. I believe he brought reassurance to Conference USA leadership as we embarked on the presidential transition."

More:How incoming Missouri State recruits reacted to school's move to Conference USA

Missouri State AD Kyle Moats says he's enjoying his budding relationship with Biff Williams

No matter how good the situation is, there's always a question as to whether a new president would want to bring in his or her people to their administration. Moats understood that upon Smart's retirement.

Through Conference USA discussions and the recent hiring of men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, Moats has started to build a relationship with his new boss.

"He's great," Moats said. "I've really enjoyed it. I've talked to him a lot, not just about this, but on other things. He's great to work with and he loves athletics, he loves football and I think he's going to be a lot of fun to work with."