Realignment Chaos Forces Venerable WAC to the Brink of Extinction
Bigger TV money on the outside and broken promises on the inside have forced the sixth oldest FBS conference to the brink of extinction.
On May 4, leagues across the country (Conference USA, Mountain West, Atlantic-10, Sun Belt) will be celebrating new arrivals in the ongoing conference realignment saga.
Meanwhile, the Western Athletic Conference, a staple in the college football pantheon for decades, is on its deathbed.
Louisiana Tech and new FBS member Texas San Antonio – along with a seemingly endless host of other schools – is C-USA bound. San Jose State and Utah State are the latest in the endless parade of schools leaving the WAC for the MWC.
In perhaps a bit of poetic justice, new Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson is helping deal the death blow to a league he spent 18 years fighting to preserve. His new league has snagged Texas State from the WAC fold before it played its first WAC game. That’s a new low for a league that once produced a national champion (BYU in 1984) and three BCS-busting teams (Boise State twice, Hawaii once).
By 2013, 26 FBS schools – more than one-fifth of all FBS schools – will have been WAC members at one point or another in the league’s 51 years of existence. 24 of those schools will be found among the ranks of the Pac-12, Big XII, Conference USA, Big East, Sun Belt, and Independents. Just two squads will remain.
Yet for one brief weekend less than two years ago, the WAC looked poised to reclaim a long-lost member and cement its long-term future.
In August 2010, then-WAC commissioner Karl Benson concocted a bold plan to bring BYU back into the fold. BYU would bring its host of nationally prominent, competitive teams in everything from basketball to gymnastics back to the WAC and a scheduling agreement in football would fill the left behind by departing Boise State.
The league, member schools, BYU and ESPN had all signed off on the deal. However, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson caught wind of the pact at the last minute and moved quickly to torpedo BYU’s plans to leave. After a hasty meeting, the MWC invited Nevada, Fresno State and Utah State (unofficially) to join.
Utah State kept its promises to the WAC and said no but Nevada and Fresno State accepted Thompson’s offer. The deal subsequently collapsed.
In the aftermath, BYU jumped ship to the WCC instead and Hawaii announced plans to follow Fresno State and Nevada a short time later. The WAC would never recover.
Ironically, the ever-shifting college football landscape now has Boise State set to return to the league it just left, albeit as a non-football member. Nevertheless, with just Idaho and New Mexico State remaining, the WAC’s gridiron hopes are dead.
Vandals and Aggies In the Cold, Attacking TV
Idaho issued a feisty public statement earlier this week blasting television for ripping its league apart, saying, “As you well know TV networks like ESPN are now running major college athletic affiliations not the NCAA. Please stand by us as we work to make this frustrating situation a positive one for the University of Idaho, its vandal alumni, family and friends.”
Idaho further lamented its media presence was being ignored. “We believe our strong presence in the Northwest media markets is being overlooked during this crucial evaluation period. We are a presence in both the Spokane and Boise media markets, which extends our reach throughout the entire Inland Northwest.”
New Mexico State, which left the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 to join the WAC, is striking a similar chord.
“This is truly a new day when the sports, primarily football, are ruled by the potential for TV coverage. We all understand that. Now we are beginning to better comprehend just how far-reaching this new reality can be. Of course, New Mexico State University has no major media market to bring to the table. Without that market our “value” as a conference member appears to be less than other schools with less successful programs but that are located in areas with a greater population. The same thing appears to be the case for the University of Idaho.”
New Mexico State is mounting an all-out effort to return to the Sun Belt. Utah State was once a football-only member of the Sun Belt and it is reasonable to think the Vandals are hoping Karl Benson has mercy on his former league members and invites both schools to come his way.
If those efforts do not pay off, the only real alternative for both New Mexico State and Idaho seems to be a return to the FCS ranks, at least for football.
“I’ve seen every possible thing happen that could happen. And each time that’s something happened, the WAC has recovered and recovered well from it,” said Jeff Hurd, the league’s interim commissioner and 26-year employee of the league. “I don’t look at things as disappointments. I look at things as opportunities. That’s the way I look at everything that happens.”
The WAC does have a few chips left to play, though none of them involves football. In all likelihood, the WAC will become a non-football sponsoring league.
In a diminished role, the WAC actually stands a good chance of surviving.
Seattle, Denver, and Boise State will be non-football playing members in 2013. Utah Valley University and Cal State Bakersfield fought for inclusion before and were spurned by the WAC. It is likely those schools would still be interested in a contracted WAC. UVU plays in the Great West, a massive league that includes schools in California, Texas, North Dakota, New Jersey, and South Carolina, among others. Cal State Bakersfield is new to D-I athletics and is still looking for a home.
Texas-Pan American is another Great West program that would likely join the beleaguered WAC, though if you have even heard of UTPA before reading this article, give yourself a point.
If Idaho and New Mexico State stick around, the WAC will stay above the 7-member threshold required to keep its place as a one-bid basketball league in the West.
At this point, that is about the best the WAC can hope for. At least, until the conference realignment wheel rotates once again.
Keeping Track in 2013
As of today (and it could change tomorrow), here’s a list of where everyone is set to land in the latest shifts. Members joining in 2012 or later are highlighted in red.
A viable non-football league is about as much as the WAC can hope for.
- Boise State (non-football)
- Denver (non-football)
- New Mexico State
- Seattle (non-football)
The MWC rebounded from the losses of BYU, Boise State, TCU and Utah by becoming a rebranded version of the WAC, circa 1996.
- Air Force
- Colorado State
- Fresno State (from WAC)
- Hawai’i (from WAC, football only. Other sports in Big West)
- Nevada (from WAC)
- New Mexico
- San Jose State (from WAC)
- Utah State (from WAC)
Much like the league it tried to merge with, C-USA survived defections to the Big East by absorbing teams from lesser leagues.
- Charlotte (new football program)
- East Carolina
- Florida International (from Sun Belt)
- North Texas (from Sun Belt)
- Louisiana Tech (from WAC)
- Old Dominion (rumored only, still FBS)
- Southern Miss
- Texas San Antonio (from WAC)
- UTEP (considering move to MWC)
It’s probably a good thing AQ leagues are going away so the Big East can be spared the embarrassment of losing that status. I still have to wonder what on earth San Diego State is doing in this conference. One thing’s for certain – BYU got it right by turning down the Big East’s offer.
- Houston (from C-USA)
- SMU (from C-USA)
- Central Florida (from C-USA)
- Memphis (from C-USA)
- San Diego State (from MWC, football only. Other sports in Big West)
- Boise State (from MWC)
- Navy (in 2015)
- South Florida
Location alone is what will save the Sun Belt from the WAC’s fate. Each time the Sun Belt loses a team it seems there are FCS teams it can coax into stepping up.
- Arkansas State
- Florida Atlantic
- Georgia State (from FBS division)
- Middle Tennessee State
- Texas State (from WAC)
- Western Kentucky