Last year, the leadership of NCAA Division I rewrote their rules, eliminating the old continuity of membership rules and making Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) membership available only by invitation from an existing FBS conference.
It was thought at the time that as long as the leadership of the Western Athletic Conference member schools acted with a modicum of common sense, these rules effectively guaranteed the WAC's survival as an FBS conference.
Today, it looks like Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference may rip the WAC apart as they rebuild in preparation for a future merger.
I think based on the value the WAC provides, the power conferences of the BCS (and the Big East) may want to step in and put a stop to the destruction of the WAC.
The BCS powers (Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, the Universities of Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, plus Florida State and a couple more schools) have a great deal of say about the rules that govern the FBS ranks.
The last revision of rules made moving to the FBS ranks require an invitation from an existing FBS conference. This was a brilliant rule—it let market conditions in the bottom-tier conferences control expansion of the FBS ranks.
The six BCS AQ conferences would not even consider inviting any school directly from the far less prestigious Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) ranks (unless their arms were twisted due to a current membership, like Villanova's in the the Big East).
The middle class of the FBS ranks (the MWC and Conference USA) who were struggling to achieve BCS AQ status would likewise not want to invite schools from the FCS level—it would hurt the perception of them being deserving of a BCS AQ slot.
Only the bottom tier of FBS conferences (the WAC, the Sun Belt, and the Mid-American Conference) would feel comfortable inviting FCS programs or "I-AAA" schools who wanted to start playing football into the FBS ranks.
Those conferences feel they are not seen as peer members of the FBS, and as such they would feel real pressure to be selective and only invite schools that immediately generate additional revenue or exposure and/or enhance the esteem of the resulting membership.
Slots in these three conferences would be at a premium.
The MAC has more than 12 football members. (12 members historically has been a number considered to be one of a few optimal totals in scheduling terms for a conference—along with nine and 10). The Sunbelt is just shy of 12 members. The WAC has seven football members and a total of 11 all-sports members.
Football conferences have historically not favored expansion beyond 12 football-playing members, and the rules state that FBS conferences should have at least eight football-playing all-sports members (although the rules do offer a brief grace period for conferences that fall below the minimum.)
At the most, assuming all three conferences would be raided from time to time, it appeared that maybe seven or eight FCS schools would get invitations in the next decade or two, as the remaining 115 or so FCS schools endure the upcoming financial bloodletting Montana's former AD predicted last year.
The odds of another school like the University of Louisiana at Monroe (who lacked the enrollment to support FBS football or the local media market to to be a valuable asset to a conference) jumping to the FBS level looked to be greatly reduced.
The BCS schools would have a slow trickle of deserving candidates moving up to help keep the cost of body-bag games low. And the FBS bottom tier conferences would assume the role of the heavy in keeping the "riffraff" out of the FBS level.
The WAC could promote schools in the southwest, the Mountain time zone, and even California. The Sun Belt could promote in the southeast, and the MAC in the northeast.
It could be argued that every school in every region who wanted to play FBS ball had a path to the FBS—even if effectively there would only be seven or eight slots available in the next 20 years.
No FCS school that wants to play FBS ball is going to sue the Sunbelt or the WAC for not inviting them. It was a perfect solution.
MWC/C-USA merger threatens the FBS firewall
If the WAC gets pulled apart to the point where it eventually fails as an FBS conference, schools in the West (like Montana, Montana State, Portland State, UC Davis, Lamar, Cal Poly, North Dakota State, Utah Valley and others) may come to feel they have legal grounds to sue when they can't get invitations to the FBS ranks.
The Sun Belt, under the leadership of former WAC commissioner Karl Benson, could fill all their slots for the foreseeable future with WAC schools. Schools near the Sunbelt and MAC footprints will quickly exhaust those conferences' remaining hunger for expansion. The merged conference will have plenty of members soon and little appetite to refill from the MAC and Sunbelt ranks.
There may not be any slots for the deserving FCS upgrade candidates of tomorrow. With 24-plus in the Sun Belt and MAC and no WAC, who will take the Appalachian States, Georgia Southerns, Delawares and Old Dominions of the world when they are ready to move up?
Who will take the schools that have invested heavily into their programs to have the option of upgrading in the future?
The end of the WAC threatens to end the newly instituted quality control at the FBS level.
Today any school with the means and desire to play at the FBS level has a pathway to upgrade by just landing an individual FBS invite and leaving their FCS conference behind. The resulting FCS conference—minus one noisy FBS advocate—is far less motivated to move up.
That is a great process for the BCS powers, who want the FBS to grow enough to keep the FCS ranks subdued but want it to grow at a glacial pace, with much consideration to the merits of potential members beforehand.
When the FCS starts falling apart and there are no slots opening up for individual schools, FCS conferences (the CAA, MVC, Southland, and Big Sky come to mind) may start trying to sue or bring political pressure to allow them to move, as conferences, into the FBS to appease their most valuable members.
While BCS programs could obviously take an FBS Montana, are they going to be receptive to an FBS Northern Colorado or Idaho State? Do the BCS elite really want more Eastern Michigans in the FBS? Unwanted headaches could arise down the road.
It seems like there could be a compelling reason for the BCS AQ powers to prefer to see the WAC survive as an FBS conference.
It seems like the WAC is precariously balanced.
Utah State and San Jose State fans feel they have a likely path for admission into the MWC sometime before July.
If either leaves, the WAC is down to six football-playing members. They only have one definite candidate (Lamar) that is in the current footprint and appears clearly willing to join the conference.
They need to have eight total football-playing all-sports members by 2014 to not to lose their designation as an FBS conference and their governance role in the NCAA.
UTSA is also talking to Conference USA. While they do not appear to be in the top four candidates for the MWC/C-USA, they are probably in the next group. UTSA's attendance average last year outpaced all other WAC and Sun Belt candidates by a large margin and has catapulted them up the candidate list.
If USU or SJSU goes (or both do), UTSA certainly appears to be preparing a backup strategy to rejoin former WAC commissioner Karl Benson in the Sun Belt as the likely replacement for UNT, should the Denton school get a C-USA invite—which appears likely.
A sensible strategy for the Sun Belt could be to add UTSA and WAC Olympic member UT Arlington as travel partners to balance out non-football school Arkansas Little Rock—with or without Texas State, depending on the total number of members in the Sun Belt.
Louisiana Tech has been in a holding pattern for over a decade pursuing a Conference USA invite and avoiding joining the regionally sensible Sun Belt. (Joining the Sun Belt would mean acknowledging local competitor ULM as a peer.)
It is very possible that if the WAC starts to fall apart and Louisiana Tech is again passed over by C-USA that Tech's rigid anti-Sun-Belt stance could soften.
There are also other options than Tech could try. They might try putting their Olympic sports in a regionally sensible conference like the MVC and playing football as an independent or even football in the MAC as Temple's replacement.
Texas State would likely try to go with UTSA to the Sun Belt if the Roadrunners leave, but are the votes there for the Bobcats?
They were rejected along with UTSA when the duo approached the Sun Belt before joining the WAC. Unlike UTSA's football attendance last year, Texas State's attendance was underwhelming and typical for the FCS level. While Benson might be a strong advocate for the Bobcats, commissioners do not pick the membership. Members do. It is tough to imagine that much has changed in the Sun Belt member schools' view of the Bobcats.
New Mexico State is a former member of the Sunbelt, but their biggest advocates in the Sun Belt may be UNT fans...and as stated previously, UNT appears to be a favorite for inclusion in C-USA. There is also the question of bad blood with Karl Benson over his departure from the WAC. With that in mind, does NMSU have the votes to gain re-admission to the Sun Belt?
Given the fact that Benson spelled out his view of the Sun Belt footprint as stretching from Florida to Texas, it suggests that Benson may not push for NMSU if the WAC collapses.
Idaho, with a unresolved stadium expansion, is likely to be left behind.
The basketball schools could inherit the WAC's NCAA tournament automatic bid. That is far better than Seattle had as an independent or that Boise State and Denver could have had if they were forced to join the Great West or go independent, but the picture of a gutted WAC that appears to be developing is distressing.
In terms of esteem, the WAC is a better caliber of conference than the Sun Belt, but the appearance of instability has it on the verge of crumbling.
It seems that even if the merged conference does not offer UTSA or Louisiana Tech a bid, letting two (or possibly one) of the western schools schools leave could have UTSA looking to escape, easily starting a landslide of erosion that dooms the WAC.
It seems clear that if you want to keep the WAC together, you have to try to block the departures of Utah State, San Jose State, UTSA, and Louisiana Tech.
With the goal in mind, how do you get there?
To stop a raid of the WAC, the MWC and C-USA need to see an obviously better solution present itself. The Big East taking ECU could steer the merged conference in that direction.
If you read between the lines, the school that is screaming the loudest for the new merged MWC/C-USA to expand to 24 members is East Carolina.
Most other MWC and C-USA members are talking about a smaller number. The other schools probably recognize that expansion to that large of a conference opens the door wide to a potential schism, and are far less enthused by the idea. They would prefer to have what effectively amounts to two coherent conferences working together to maximize their TV revenue.
If that irritant can be removed, much of the expansion push could be cooled.
ECU's desire to expand is an understandable complaint. ECU was bleeding travel costs in the old 12 member C-USA the last time fuel was this expensive. The idea of playing in an eight- to 11-team division that could stretch to El Paso is very unappealing to them, especially since the TV return of this merger effort may be less than originally envisioned.
The idea of a schism probably doesn't scare them because they think they will be in the Big East by the time something like that might happen.
If the Big East were to add ECU, the emerging MWC/C-USA could look entirely different.
If ECU is out, suddenly the C-USA footprint can be geographically smaller and the idea of just adding, say, UNT and and FIU and going with 16 all-sports members could seem very reasonable to the emerging mega-conference.
After all, it isn't like anyone outside the current membership (besides maybe Utah State for their basketball program) truly merits inclusion.
Two other factors could come into play.
Athletic directors at the Eastern C-USA schools have long talked of the importance of having a Florida C-USA member to help those schools appeal to Florida talent to supplement their local recruiting. There is probably a strong desire in the C-USA membership to add Florida International (a university in the Miami Designated Market Area) as an all-sports member to replace outgoing UCF.
Additionally, with the loss of SMU and Rice, UTEP appears eager to rejoin their historic rivals in the MWC.
For UTEP, travel in the new C-USA would be far more expensive and time-consuming than in the new MWC. UNM is UTEP's primary rival. Schools in C-USA also don't like flying to El Paso in every sport, and would likely prefer to see UTEP move west and FIU come in.
That would have eight all-sports members in the MWC (plus football-only Hawaii) and eight all-sports members in C-USA.
That looks like a very stable configuration. It works geographically. It works in scheduling terms. It retains current esteem levels. The schools are close enough together and have enough historic rivalries to appeal to TV networks.
Per-team TV revenue today would likely be in the ballpark of the per-team TV revenue the plans for 24 members would yield—with far less potential for an ugly divorce down the road.
Conferences generally favor doing expansion in small steps so that they do not add schools which ultimately hurt their future potential or lead to schisms. In this environment, that could be 16 full members.
The BCS elite could sweeten the idea of the merged conference staying at 16 by tweaking their rules. What if the BCS AQ ranks are limited to conferences with 18 football playing member or less? It is a smart rule in that it won't affect BCS conferences today and could potentially prevent that kind of move from leading to more realignment chaos down the road. What if the merged conference is offered offered an easier path to the at-large share that comes with a BCS bowl invite?
Why It Works for the Big East
As I covered in detail here, there are far more reasons for the Big East to add ECU at this point than to keep them out.
Why It Works for the BCS Elite
The only thing that scares the BCS elite are lawsuits. Keeping the WAC to help blunt lawsuits is really a good trade-off for conceding slightly better access to an at-large BCS bowl bid for the merged conference. The dominant schools (Tulsa, Southern Miss, Hawaii, Fresno State) in the fairly weak merged conference could earn an at large slot fairly regularly (or the conference could try to sue or use politicians to force their way in).
In order to keep the lion's share of the pile of money, the BCS elite have to give a little away to keep public opinion out of their affairs.
Why It Works for the Merged Conference
If ECU is gone, the MWC/C-USA really doesn't have much leverage. If the BCS ends the BCS bowls replacing them entirely with a plus-one playoff, the bowls will align with conferences directly and the merged conference—with its lousy average turnouts—will be out in the cold anyway.
Getting a version of the old system with slightly better terms and a stable conference moving forward is a very good scenario for the merged conference, and well worth passing on WAC teams to achieve.
Why It Works for WAC Fans (Or at Least This One)
In my opinion, the WAC still has the best bones of the three FCS gateway conferences. As a Texan, I think Lamar, Texas State, UTSA and UTA (which is allegedly considering bringing back football) with Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State makes for the core of a very good FBS non-AQ football conference. Adding in basketball ringers Seattle and Denver (to go with Lamar, USU, and New Mexico State) could have WAC basketball heading back in the right direction as well.
The WAC has good TV markets in the southwest that can build off each other, and the proximity can create good rivalries. It has what it takes to build good TV payouts in time. The member schools have fairly good academic reputations—compared to the Sun Belt at least—and many of the schools are more motivated than the average non-FBS school to improve their lot.
What it doesn't have is time. The WAC needs the BCS elites and the Big East to buy it time.
Here's hoping they do.