SAN JOSE -- San Jose State opens conference play this week against an opponent it has faced eight years in a row and 35 times in all -- but never like this.

The Friday night duel with Utah State is the Spartans' first Mountain West Conference game and comes 17 months after their dramatic escape from the Western Athletic Conference.

"We were holding our breath," said Mike MacIntyre, the Spartans' coach at the time. "I remember thinking that we weren't getting into the Mountain West, and then all of a sudden we were. If we hadn't gotten in, that might have been it for football."

If the Mountain West hadn't extended the lifeline, the 120-year-old Spartans football program would have faced options ranging from terrible to death: Forge ahead as an independent, squeeze into the Sun Belt as a football-only member, drop into the Big Sky or eliminate football altogether.

Each option meant greatly diminished prestige, a massive loss in income and, most likely, a significant drop in fundraising -- not only for athletics but the university as a whole.

"The Mountain West move is the touchstone moment in the history of Spartan athletics," deputy athletic director Marie Tuite said. "Think of the consequences if we hadn't gotten in."

Long climb to Mountain West

The long, anxious climb into the Mountain West began Aug. 18, 2010, the day Fresno State and Nevada announced they were leaving the WAC for its richer, more prestigious rival, the Mountain West.

Boise State already had made the jump, and Hawaii would soon follow (football only). The departures were a knockout blow to WAC football and left remaining members scrambling to find suitable homes.

For San Jose State and Utah State, there was only one acceptable option.

"Due to the instability of the WAC, they were saying, 'What can we do to get in?' " Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson recalled.

Tom Bowen, the Spartans' athletic director at the time, worked behind the scenes to convince the Mountain West that SJSU would be a valuable addition, but the league had other priorities: Thompson spent months pursuing a merger with Conference USA that would have created the first super-conference.

Ultimately, that plan fizzled. The Mountain West, which had eight members, went looking for more.

Thompson visited San Jose State on March 20, 2012. He toured the facilities with Bowen, met with various university officials and influential donors, and was briefed on the Spartans' plans for their new football facility.

But SJSU had competition for the coveted spots in the Mountain West. Utah State possessed better facilities, more community support and a vastly superior basketball program. Texas State, a newcomer to major college football, offered a foothold in the talent-rich region and was building a new stadium.

SJSU tried to sell the MWC on its position in one of the nation's largest media markets, but the conference wasn't buying: In the crowded Bay Area marketplace, the Spartans were near the bottom of the sporting hierarchy.

"Things were changing every day," Tuite said. "I'd get a call from a colleague saying, 'You're in.' Then that afternoon, another colleague would call and say, 'I heard you're out.' "

Bowen, who had spearheaded the drive for Mountain West membership, resigned in mid-April to accept the same position at Memphis. Tuite became the interim athletic director and continued the charge.

During the WAC's annual spring meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late April, she received a call from SJSU president Mohammad Qayoumi: The Mountain West was requesting additional information -- immediately. Tuite returned to campus, gathered her senior staff and worked through the night.

The six-page document detailed SJSU's plans for improvement in four vital areas: Academic performance, facilities, football attendance and power rating in all sports -- particularly men's basketball.

"We were selling potential," Tuite said. "There was no question that we could fix the challenges, but we needed time. Other schools were further ahead."

The Spartans cited infrastructure changes implemented by Bowen in the previous 18-24 months (access to summer school, additional strength coaches and academic support personnel, out-of-state tuition waivers, etc.) as reasons to expect improved academic and on-field performance.

Meanwhile, Qayoumi worked the phones to personally assure Thompson and the Mountain West presidents that SJSU would follow through on its promise to upgrade facilities.

The most vexing issue was men's basketball. Two of the Mountain West's most influential schools, UNLV and New Mexico, were concerned the Spartans' ghastly power rating would undermine the strength of the conference.

Tuite handled the matter personally and explained that SJSU had increased the basketball recruiting budget for out-of-state and international prospects, worked with the Event Center to create openings for more home games and decreased the number of road guarantees (big paychecks in exchange for a drubbing).

"We sent them the information," Tuite said, "but I was still incredibly nervous."

From afar, Gene Bleymaier monitored the situation. The former Boise State athletic director was interested in the vacancy at SJSU.

"The Mountain West was essential for San Jose State's future," Bleymaier said. "But it was a fluid situation."

Three long days later, the conference extended an invitation for membership in all sports.

"There seemed to be a plan to grow athletics," Thompson explained recently. "That was music to our ears."

Better for university

Because of the Mountain West, the Spartans are on national television an unprecedented seven times this season.

Because of the Mountain West, the Spartans will eventually collect more than $1 million annually in revenue from television broadcasts and NCAA distributions.

"Television, corporate sponsorships, tickets, merchandise -- every revenue stream can be impacted positively," Tuite said.

Because of the Mountain West, the Spartans will have access to better bowl games and a chance to reach the NCAA basketball tournament as an at-large team. They'll compete annually against their sister schools, San Diego State and Fresno State. And they'll recruit prospects who wouldn't take calls from teams in the Sun Belt and Big Sky.

But that's not all.

Bleymaier, who became athletic director three weeks after SJSU joined the Mountain West, believes the move will make San Jose State a better university.

"It's bigger for the academic side than athletics," said the man who turned Boise State into a national power. "The exposure, the reputation of our brethren -- it all puts the university on a different level, and that can help attract better faculty and staff."

In other words, membership in the Mountain West means everything to San Jose State.

For more on college sports, see Jon Wilner's College Hotline at blogs.mercurynews.com/collegesports. Contact him at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.

FRIDAY'S GAME

Utah St. (2-2, 1-0 MWC) at SJSU (1-2, 0-0), 6 p.m. ESPN