Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Rise and Fall of the WAC

By Kevin Beane

In the continuing reshuffling of college football conferences, there's a certain natural order in place. The very top conferences (Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC) can cannibalize any conference they wish (it's tempting to include the ACC in that, as well, but they haven't had much football luster since Florida State and Miami stopped contending for national titles, and FSU has considered leaving the ACC for the Big 12). Then the second tier (ACC, Big 12, Big East) picks apart each other, as well as the third tier (Conference USA, Mountain West), who go after each other, and the fourth tier (MAC, WAC, Sun Belt). The fourth tier schools then try to replenish with schools from Division 1-AA.

But there is one upset, one hitch, in the natural order, and that is the way the WAC has gone, in the last 30 years, from second tier to third to fourth to conference non grata and, in all likelihood, is not going to be a conference beyond 2013, or at very least not one that plays football at the Division 1-A level (I still refuse to use the fake marketing terms "FBS" and "FCS").

It wasn't always this way. The WAC of my youth was second to only the Pac-10 in Western football dominance, and a close second at that. You had the high-flying offense of Hawaii, Marshall Faulk and San Diego State, and always-competitive Air Force. And then, of course, was BYU, who was an elite football program throughout the '80s and even won a national championship in 1984.

It seems bizarre to consider it now, but the first nail in the WAC's conference probably was the result of being too aggressive in expansion. Once the Southwest Conference broke up and the Big West stopped sponsoring football, the WAC picked up the carrion, and grew to 16 teams in 1996.

While it would not surprise me to see a 16 (or more) team conference again, and soon, in 1996 it was radical and, as it turns out, unsustainable. Travel costs were enormous for a conference that stretched from Hawaii to Oklahoma, and the old guard of conference founders felt the conference as a whole was diluted.

So eight of the 16 schools (for all intents and purposes, the best eight) bolted to form their own conference, the Mountain West in 1999.

But the WAC wasn't done competing as a solid conference, far from it. What kept the WAC relevant was the emergence of Boise State.

I'm not sure that there is an equivalent tale in college sports to the meteoric and seemingly permanent rise of Boise State. The closest I can come is comparing them to Gonzaga in college basketball. Boise State didn't even compete in 1-AA until 1978, 16 years after the WAC was born.

In 1-AA, they were solid, and then moved to 1-A, first to the Big West and then the WAC. Since the advent of the BCS, a school from a non-BCS conference has only qualified for or been invited to a BCS Bowl five times, and three of those were WAC schools (twice with Boise, who won both their BCS Bowls, and Hawaii once). TCU nabbed the other two berths for the Mountain West. BYU has never made a BCS bowl. In this regard, the WAC has been even more successful than the Mountain West, the conference that is supposedly the heir apparent, in terms of quality, to the original WAC.

But Boise State left for the Mountain West, as well, last year (and soon will be headed to the Big East), and just about everyone else has left in the aftermath. Boise took Hawaii, Fresno State, and Nevada with them to the Mountain West. The WAC gamely tried to replace them, to maintain that natural order. They added Seattle, Denver, and Texas-Arlington as non-football schools, and also snagged Texas State from the Southland (1-AA) Conference, as well as Texas-San Antonio, who only recently started a football program. This would leave the WAC as a shell of its former self, but at least it would remain a viable football conference.

Three weeks ago, the bombs really started to drop on the WAC. They lost two more members to the Mountain West, San Jose State and Utah State. Louisiana Tech joined Conference USA. But perhaps most stunningly, the two schools that only just agreed to join also announced plans to leave — UTSA to Conference USA and Texas State to the Sun Belt Conference. Less than a month ago, a move from the WAC to the Sun Belt would have been considered a step down. Now it's merely a bid for survival. Even their commissioner, Karl Benson, left to take the same role in the Sun Belt Conference.

UTSA and Texas State will play exactly one year in the WAC before moving on to their new conferences, and then, despite new commissioner Jeff Hurd saying all the right things about "exploring every possible option" and keeping the WAC alive as a 1-A football conference, it is almost impossible to think anything other than next year is the last for WAC football.

The speed in which all of this went down is truly dizzying. Consider that on November 26th, 2010, less than 18 months ago, No. 3 ranked Boise State was playing No. 19 Nevada in a de facto WAC championship game between two national powers.

Now there are two WAC football-playing schools still in the conference with no announced plans to depart: Idaho and New Mexico State.

Idaho is an especially interesting case. As an Ohio State alum, I have enjoyed a dominance over my rival that only ended last year. Before that, I would sometimes troll Michigan fan sites and say the OSU/Michigan rivalry will never be competitive again, that Ohio State has left the Wolverines in the rearview mirror forever. As I say, I was trolling. I realize that rivalries have ebbs and flows for each team.

But Idaho and Boise State used to have a big rivalry, and it truly will never be the same again, at least not in any foreseeable future. They play (or rather, played, now that they are no longer in the same conference) for the Governor's Trophy. In 1998, Idaho beat Boise State 36-35 to take a 17-10 lead in the their all-time series with the Broncos. Idaho has not beaten them since, over 12 games, and now finds themselves so undesirable that they are (again, along with New Mexico State) the only school not able to extract itself from the ashes of the WAC. They are in talks with the Big Sky Conference, which carries the same geographical footprint of the old WAC, and if they make that move, it will be a drop down to Division 1-AA. Since the advent of 1-A and 1-AA, no school has ever dropped from the former to the latter. As of this writing, New Mexico State hasn't even been able to find that much of a home.

I've spent a lot of space in this column describing what has happened to the WAC. What I can't explain is why. The issues such as travel costs have not destroyed the other conferences operating over the vast expanse of the Western United States, so I cannot accept that as a primary reason for the WAC's demise. Whatever the reason, it is a sad and unfitting end to a once-great conference. The WAC is dead, long live the WAC.

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