This weekend, I’ll be presenting a (3) part article on the state of the WAC. The first part will cover the current state of the WAC in regards to what has happened and what it all means. The second will cover what else we could see happen or in other words, what else could possibly go wrong. The final part will be a recap of the winners and losers on a school by school basis.
State of the WAC – Part 1: WAC on Life Support:
Just a few months ago, the WAC appeared prepared to pull off a major coup
and perhaps even bypass the Mountain West conference. BYU was poised to leave the MWC for football independence and join the WAC for it’s other sports. BYU would then in turn schedule a number of WAC football schools each season. With BYU being one of the power wielders in the region, the WAC football schools were set to benefit. Such a move by BYU was surely to get Boise St., the football power in the region to second guess their MWC defection and possibly remain in the WAC. Confidence was so high that many thought this colossal momentum shift might even be enough to get the western schools from the MWC, UNLV and San Diego St. to leave the MWC as well. And maybe, just maybe, if UNLV and San Diego St. joined the WAC, New Mexico would follow.
So one night WAC commissioner Karl Benson and many of the WAC school administrators went to sleep envisioning that perhaps in a matter of days, their future would be as a unity with more power and leverage against the BCS, a dream that in a matter of 1-2 years they could have a conference membership comprised of:
Boise St., Idaho, Utah St., *BYU, Nevada, UNLV, San Jose St., Fresno St., San Diego St., New Mexico, New Mexico St., LA Tech
…and the Mountain West left in shambles with only Colorado St., Air Force, Wyoming and TCU, with TCU sure to move on to CUSA or the Big East.
This wasn’t a dream that was out of reach. All that was needed was what seemed like a given: unity. But like many instances in life, the easiest aspect was in fact the most difficult to maintain.
Utah St. with it’s moral conviction, held strong to the dream laid out by Karl Benson and reportedly rejected the temptations from the Mountain West
. Utah St. knew if they caved in and ate the Mountain West apple, that the WAC unity would be broken and they would kill the dream of a conference rival for non-football sports with BYU. And in an incredibly selfless act, Utah St. remained strong. But Fresno St. and Nevada had other ideas. And when Karl Benson woke up the next morning, his dream was dead. The Mountain West had defeated the WAC by simply breaking the unity and turning Fresno St. and Nevada against the WAC
. And in turn, BYU passed on the WAC and joined the WCC
instead, leaving Utah St. wondering how it all went wrong.
After some time to regroup
, the WAC laid out a recovery plan
. They brought in FCS upgrades UTSA and Texas St,
to appease LA Tech, a school that could have bolted to the Sunbelt. They brought in Denver for non-football sports, a school in the heart of the WAC footprint. Seattle University was lined up as a potential 10th member for non-football, giving the conference some access to the northwest market, but was eventually passed over as it appeared the sleeping giant Montana was prepared to upgrade and join the WAC.
Montana instead opted to remain at the FCS level of football, in the Big Sky. But still, it was just a minor hiccup. Karl Benson and the WAC had done enough with UTSA and Texas St. in the fold, and added Denver as a luxury with Seattle likely to be brought in later as well.
So even after the big blow issued by the Mountain West, the WAC just needed everyone to provide just a bit more unity and remain strong.
But yet again, that was too high an expectation.
The NCAA has specific criteria for what defines a conference and what is necessary for the conference to obtain and retain some of the things that most people just assume are a given…such as NCAA playoff and tournament automatic berths. For a conference to retain it’s status for football at the FBS level, they are required to have at least 8 members. There is or course a grace period in play for a conference to retool after defections, something we last saw when the Big East lost 3 of it’s members to the ACC and had to bring in 3 replacements from CUSA.
For NCAA Division 1 basketball, the automatic bid to the Final Four tournament is something we’re used to seeing virtually every conference retain, including those conferences which every year place a single school in the tournament that get a #15 or #16 seed or subject to the dreaded “play in” game. But at the core of that automatic bid is a notion that the conference can undergo some minor changes but keep 5-6 core members for a given period. And with the defections of Boise St., then Nevada, Fresno St., and now potentially Hawaii, that leaves the WAC with only 5 core members: SJSU, NMSU, Idaho, LA Tech and Utah St.
And at risk now is not only the inevitable football instability, but also the future as a conference.
Hawaii was living a good life when one day the world changed around them and they were forced out of their middle-management job and forced to work at a Starbucks. Now Hawaii sees that if they leave their WAC family, including the twin buns in the oven (UTSA & Texas St.), they can perhaps one day find the life they once had. It might seem like a cruel analogy…and even worse is that in this case, one cannot blame Hawaii. College sports are a business and Hawaii, just like the other departing WAC schools, needs to put their own interests first. Loyalty is and should always be towards the tax and tuition payers of a given university, not towards a collection of other schools, especially when there exist no other schools from Hawaii that will be effected economically.
A move by Hawaii to the MWC for football positions them to maintain rivalries with a number of schools in the western region, rather than replace said rivalries with new ones with the Texas schools UTSA and Texas St. If Hawaii does indeed join the Big West for it’s other sports, they will only need to fly to Los Angeles and San Francisco in order to reach all their opponents. No longer will they need to fly to Spokane to play Idaho, El Paso to play NMSU, Louisiana and then a bus ride to play LA Tech.
So the potential Hawaii moves make sense. It’s just that the WAC is now in a tough spot.
So What’s Next for the WAC?
The NCAA rules are in place and if taken literally, the WAC could be in trouble. But like any rules put in place, they are done so to protect the spirit of the NCAA and the well-being of individual schools and were not created as a form of punishment against a conference. It’s not as if the WAC decided to eject 4 of it’s core members because they didn’t like them and wanted to replace them with better candidates. In such a shocking situation, one would expect the NCAA to follow through with the policies they’ve set to protect those institutions that would have been ousted from their conference home. In other words, the NCAA rules exist so that conferences can’t take advantage of it’s own members in order to improve the good of a select few in regards to membership (certainly not the case with TV contracts).
But the WAC is clearly the victim here.
And with the WAC being victimized, now with only 7 football schools and a single non-football school being left in potential limbo, the NCAA might have to consider it’s options: stick to the literal translation of the rules and enforce them…which would punish the WAC schools left behind. Or work with the WAC to assist them since they are already suffering due to losing four schools. It might be an optimistic outlook, but the current WAC situation is one in which the NCAA can serve as a protector and not a punisher.
The quickest remedy for the WAC would be to find an 8th football school. The problem is that none exist at this time at the FBS level. Schools in existing conferences like the Sunbelt will be weary to leave for the WAC when there appears to be no real gain in joining, nor proof that the conference will remain stable. North Texas and Arkansas St. would be fine additions with LA Tech, UTSA and Texas St. in the WAC, but North Texas rejected the WAC in 2005 when the WAC had members like Boise St., Nevada, Fresno St. and Hawaii.
FCS upgrades such as Texas St. and new football schools such as UTSA are the only real options. The problem is that other than those 2 schools which have already announced for the WAC, there are no real options. The WAC had reached out to Montana, a school many have expected to make the leap to the highest level of football, especially since Montana would have instant rivalries with nearby schools Idaho and Utah St. Instead, Montana has opted to remain at the lower level of Division 1, in FCS.
The WAC is now faced with having to be more proactive in finding another FCS school to make the leap.
There are a number of schools that are not nearly as ready as Montana that might have to be contacted again. Schools like Sacramento St., Cal Poly, and UC Davis would need to be convinced by the WAC that this is the ideal time to make the upgrade and join nearby San Jose St. in the conference.
Portland St. is another school that could be contacted again and pressed to join now, knowing that they would likely be able to have a quicker impact due to the current crippling of the WAC football product.
Texas schools Lamar and Sam Houston St. have expressed interest in upgrading, but don’t have the economics in place to make that happen right now. But with the WAC in a desperate state, there could always be economic concessions made to both schools to assist in a much earlier upgrade.
But even if the WAC were fortunate enough to find an 8th football school, the basketball product might still need some reinforcements.
Seattle University had been considered for the WAC at the same time as UTSA, Texas St., and Denver, but were passed over as the WAC expected Montana to join, giving the WAC 9 football members and 10 basketball schools. With Montana passing, it only seems like a matter of time before Seattle is officially invited. As Seattle currently has no conference home, there is no risk in them joining a questionable WAC.
Utah Valley is another school without football and without a true conference home. They participate in the scheduling arrangement of a conference, the Great West. Utah Valley could give the basketball product of the WAC some reinforcement in membership numbers.
Deep in the south of Texas is Texas-Pan American, another Great West school without football. With the new additions of UTSA and Texas St., UTPA makes more sense now that they ever did before for the WAC.
Cal St. – Bakersfield is the last of the homeless schools in the region. As a recent Division1 upgrade, CSUB has hoped for membership in the Big West, the logical fit for them. But with Hawaii potentially joining the Big West, it would put that conference at 10 members. Expanding to 11 would be difficult to schedule, especially with the addition of Hawaii and the complications that their joining would have on travel concerns. For CSUB to join the Big West, it might require the conference to look for a 12th school. But like the WAC is seeing, there just aren’t many options. Seattle University, despite their location, might be the only easy 12th candidate for the Big West as at least travel would be easy with the Big West schools close proximity to Los Angeles and San Francisco
airports (and Seattle University being just a few miles from the SeaTac international airport). The Big West could also try to work with the Big Sky and bring in Sacramento St. for non-football sports as the 12th school. The Big Sky was expecting South Dakota to join as the 12th all-sports member (and 14th football member), but passed when a more attractive offer came from the MVFC and Summit League. At an awkward 11 members for all-sports, a defection by Sacramento St. would bring the Big Sky to a more manageable 10 members for non-football sports.
It seems less likely that any Big West or Big Sky schools would consider the WAC for non-football. While Sacramento St. to the Big West arguably makes sense for non-football sports, they would be increasing their travel even more from the Big Sky if they joined the WAC.
For the WAC to fully protect itself, they could go with a larger membership by bringing in a number of the above mentioned schools. Such a lineup could look like (* = includes football):
* Utah St.
* (unknown) An 8th football school such as Sacramento St., UC Davis, Cal Poly, Portland St)…if no football school, then CSU-Bakersfield is an option.
* New Mexico St.
* Texas St.
* LA Tech
It’s certainly not the best looking conference. And to see a multiple basketball bid conference having to turn to independents and Great West members is tough to swallow. Even worse is that the WAC now NEEDS FCS schools to upgrade to stabilize their current football members.
But the question is: if the world around you is collapsing, and you have other options, why would you remain. And the answer is simply that you wouldn’t. As we’ve seen with Hawaii, and with Nevada and Fresno St. right before, the greatest obstacles to the WAC’s stability are the WAC members themselves.