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Logan • When Scott Barnes took over Utah State's struggling athletic department in 2008, he looked at the budget, took a deep breath and tried to get his arms around the enormous challenge that lay ahead.

USU operated in the red back then, with a budget deficit of $2.2 million and little optimism that things would improve any time soon. So, Barnes went to work. And today, USU's athletic budget is in the black and projected to climb to a record $21 million.

So why isn't this man smiling?

Because Barnes has to roll that rock back up the hill again. Utah State will likely have the smallest athletic budget in the Mountain West Conference when it joins the league next year. According to USA Today's latest college athletic budget estimates, the Aggies are dwarfed by conference leaders UNLV ($59 million) and New Mexico ($37 million). USU's former Western Athletic Conference peers, Fresno State ($26.6 million), Hawaii ($34.9 million) and Nevada ($23.9 million), all have bigger budgets as they move into the MWC this year. Only fellow MWC newcomer San Jose State ($21 million) is in the Aggies' ballpark.

Barnes knows there's a lot of work to do — again.

"We want and need to get to a place where we feel good about ourselves," he said earlier this week. "We feel that we need to be towards the middle [of the conference] in order to compete for championships. We are selling the program every day. Our role is to get the fan base and the donors to understand what the needs are. We enjoy that because every day we are selling the future of Utah State athletics."

For Barnes, that means pushing the budget closer to $30 million in the next five years. It means increasing the football season ticket base from the 5,500 it's at now to the 10,000 range over the next three years. It means the continual expansion of the Big Blue Scholarship Fund and reeling in increased support from boosters, who for so long have been anchored by Jim and Carol Laub.

Costs also figure to go up in the new conference. If the football program continues to improve, paying coach Gary Andersen enough to keep him in Logan could become an issue. Already, Andersen has lost several assistants in recent years because he didn't have the money to match offers from other schools.

And sprucing up Romney Stadium also will be a priority. Plans call for adding premium seating and, eventually, luxury suites. A new football weight room and basketball practice facility are also in the works.

To help pay for some of these projects, season ticket prices will increase, Barnes said. But he has spent months prepping the school's donor base for this, anticipating the move to the Mountain West.

Jim Laub knows it can't just be his family leading the booster charge. He says there is a core group of supporters who are ready and willing to give. Getting commitments from those on the fence, though, will be a challenge.

"Winning solves a lot of those issues," Laub said. "Different corporations need to step up and buy group tickets. The university is going to have to broaden its horizons a little bit as well. The one thing about this school is that we don't need to be near the top in order to compete for titles. Dollar for dollar, we get as much out of our budget as anyone."

The good news? The Aggies are expected to win in their final year in the WAC. Coming off its first bowl appearance in many years, Andersen's team is expected to contend for a conference football championship. And Stew Morrill's men's basketball team is forecast to bounce back in 2012-13 after enduring a rebuilding season.

That would drive season ticket sales, boost donations and provide USU with some momentum going into the new league. But the onus will be on those programs to deliver.

"Winning is obviously extremely important in this equation," Andersen said. "We have to look to get better, and it will be a challenge, but a challenge that everyone is excited about. It's also very important that we handle ourselves well in the classroom and in the community. People may want to give money because we graduate our players. So we have to be a well-rounded football program."

tjones@sltrib.comTwitter: @tonyaggieville —

MWC athletic budgets

From 2010-11, including all schools that will comprise the Mountain West Conference in 2013-14.

School • Budget

UNLV • $59,143,059

New Mexico • $37,331,322

Air Force • $35,081,470

Hawaii • $34,946,092

Fresno St. • $26,690,524

Wyoming • $26,524,851

Colorado St. • $25,355,036

Nevada • $23,988,811

San Jose State • $20,785,707

Utah St. • $19,344,112

Source: USA Today