After months of fruitless tire spinning, conditions are right for a serious Western Athletic Conference realignment plan to emerge and gain traction.
And WAC Interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd has Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson to thank. The soft-spoken Thompson was appropriately blunt with Idaho and New Mexico State yesterday in his press conference.
Thompson was pretty clear that in financial terms, adding NMSU "didn't move the needle" for the MWC in TV terms.
It seems a forgone conclusion that there were not the votes to admit either school. One can speculate that Thompson may have worried the last two WAC FBS schools would allow the WAC to die in anticipation of some upcoming MWC invite. The likely result would have had both schools' football programs dying under the expense of playing FBS-independent schedules.
Realignment could always unexpectedly hit the MWC and force their membership to strongly reconsider both members. Thompson had to take action to save both schools as last resort, hold-your-nose options if better candidates cannot meet a future MWC timeframe.
While this is great for the WAC, it doesn't paint a full picture of the WAC's struggles since UT Arlington left.
Did McKinley Boston tell the WAC membership and candidates that NMSU doesn't care?
Apparently confident that NMSU was going to be in the MWC, NMSU's Athletic Director McKinley Boston stated last month:
Maybe that was a misquote by Las Cruces Sun-News reporter Jason Groves, but I doubt it. If you remove the "while" the reporter added, the statement could suggest the WAC schools are looking at other options rather than NMSU—a totally innocent comment.
But see, that is the thing. The reporter added the "while" to make Boston's intent clear. That is usually the only reason a reporter ever adds words to a quote. And the article clearly seems to back that understanding of Boston's words, going on to quote Boston specifically about ongoing conversations with NMSU and the MWC.
Knowing how damaging this quote was to the WAC, Boston and NMSU never demanded a correction, so we have to take that as an accurate quote of Boston's intent.
NMSU clearly doesn't have the money to bear independence—the Sunbelt had already declined to invite them, and El Paso based UTEP being in Conference USA would almost certainly preclude NMSU from getting a C-USA invite.
The implication of the quotes seemed pretty clearly to convey to NMSU fans that NMSU had a pathway into their only likely FBS avenue of escape from the WAC—the MWC.
Boston seems to have made the statement to appease NMSU fans and take the heat off his school and his athletic department. It undoubtedly had the consequences of further undermining WAC efforts to appear stable.
Hurd mentioned on July 9th that a lack of perceived stability was a major hindrance in building a candidate list.
“Some schools have to be convinced that we’re around for the long haul. We have to show we’re viable, have to show we’re sustainable,” Hurd said. “Overcoming the perception we’re not is difficult. It’s one of the obstacles as we move forward.”
Boston's quote probably didn't help.
It seems likely that if that was representative of NMSU's position, that position forced the WAC's I-AAA schools, Denver and Seattle, to go along with whatever crazy plan Idaho wanted to pursue in order to get Idaho on board with expansion.
After all, it would take a ton of Chutzpah for the two non-football schools in the WAC to attempt to drag in outgoing Boise State into an alliance in order to outvote the remaining two FBS members and invite a division of eastern FCS schools to the FBS level.
Were Seattle and Denver going to tell NMSU and Idaho, "This is where you are flying in football..."?
That might actually have gotten immediate attention from the FBS leadership group.
That would not be a workable plan. One of the FBS schools had to bless whatever FBS survival plan came out of the WAC.
So why not be an Olympic Sport only I-AAA conference?
The idea of just being an non-football conference is likely not favored by Denver and Seattle, because that is not an especially prestigious setup. Plus the west already has a ton of stable I-AAA conferences ahead of where an I-AAA WAC would be.
Generally schools will not travel that far for a I-AAA membership. They are regional conferences for the most part.
A I-AAA WAC would likely be forced to add most of the four western horsemen of conference shark jumping: UT Pan American, Cal State Bakersfield, Utah Valley University and Chicago State.
That foursome is a collection of low-ranked academic schools either in small markets or with local semi-pro competition in basketball (their only revenue sport) eating a lot of local entertainment dollars.
There are reasons no I-AAA or FCS conferences with an NCAA automatic tourney bid have admitted these schools.
Adding the 3 to 4 of them required would be a total kick in the teeth to Denver and Seattle and would cement the WAC in as the Summit League of the western third of the US. (The Summit League is a non-football conference that just lost one of their best basketball schools—Oral Roberts—to the Southland Conference, an FCS conference that doesn't care about basketball.)
The academically strong Seattle and Denver certainly don't want that, so crazy plan it was.
What was that crazy plan?
Idaho has been equally as non-committal to Seattle and Denver. Idaho President Duane Nellis has said returning to the FCS level and resuming old Big Sky rivalries is not off the table and almost everyone in any position of power at Idaho has said independence is an option they are considering instead of remaining in the WAC.
Most fans and reporters who have weighed in on the subject of Idaho football independence consider that a short term option that won't do much to enhance Idaho's position and will probably eventually lead to Idaho rejoining the Big Sky.
Idaho's leadership desperately would like nearby rivals (and strong draws) Montana and Montana State in the same conference as the Vandals. Those schools have not expressed any interest in joining today's WAC.
Recently there have been reports of Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton talking with Idaho's leadership and Hurd about allegedly trying to work out a deal to allow both conferences to keep their NCAA tournament automatic bids.
Recall that the MWC and C-USA had similar thoughts during their merger talks and were informed that they would not be able to keep both tourney bids in some kind of loose alignment. So then the thought becomes that in this agreement the Big Sky would push two or three Big Sky schools into the WAC.
To make it worthwhile for the WAC schools, in this option the WAC would not be forced to add more than one or two of the horsemen. But it forces both WAC football schools to look elsewhere for a football home, and this opens a big can of worms on the Big Sky end too.
The Big Sky is not going to willingly push any of the four likely roadblocks for WAC expansion (Montana, Montana State, Portland State, or North Dakota) into the WAC. It would be equally strategically foolish to push their middle class (Weber State, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona) into the WAC without binding assurances from the WAC.
So why would schools the Big Sky possibly regrets inviting bite on volunteering to join to the WAC?
Now I could be missing something big here, but I can't see how this is going to work. And I am not the only one.
It seems a lot more likely that Fullerton is playing on Idaho's desire to be in the same conference as the Montanas.
By working with the Big Sky, Idaho doesn't have to worry about upsetting the Montanas or the other Big Sky schools. If it doesn't play out, Idaho will still have the votes to step back into the Big Sky and maybe down to the FCS level. The trouble is, there may not be a workable benefit for the WAC schools.
It seems a lot more likely that from a Big Sky perspective, this is a delaying tactic designed to foster good relations with the WAC before Hurd finds the right Big Sky schools to approach and the right angle to use. When the WAC dies, Fullerton can move in and claim Idaho.
Meanwhile, in the WAC email folder...
As all of this has been occurring, several eastern powers have apparently been toying with the idea of joining the WAC as members of an eastern WAC division.
Here's the smoking gun from Jacksonville State football coach Jack Crowe:
It sounds like those eastern schools are waiting for some indication of interest from the WAC. And Crowe isn't the only representative of a potential eastern candidate talking about no communications with the WAC.
Georgia Southern has a very public interest in moving to the FBS level. Their athletic director Sam Baker told the Statesboro Herald recently that their school had only had talks with the Sunbelt Conference—not the WAC. (The Sunbelt passed on Georgia Southern.)
"We’ve had no conversations (with other FBS conferences)," Baker said....We reached out to them (the Sunbelt) because, if you had to look geographically and financially, as far as the budgetary issues, it probably is the one that might work....The WAC has got some issues.Right now they’ve only got two football programs and I believe five schools overall in the conference after this year. … They’ve been at the brink of being dissolved a few years ago and they came back from the abyss, but I don’t know this time if they can make that."
Baker said Georgia Southern would refuse a WAC offer if tendered. Perhaps there is some bitterness there, as the idea of a WAC western division has been floating out there for months and the WAC has not contacted Georgia Southern. Or maybe it is a statement designed to send a message to the WAC membership about Georgia Southern's needs.
Finances in this situation should not be a deal breaker. There is no reason a smartly configured WAC eastern division could not offer similar travel costs to membership in a Sunbelt eastern division.
Taken at face value, it sounds like Georgia Southern did not believe the WAC was stable enough to rebuild with an eastern division.
With Georgia Southern's stated geographic and financial concerns, It is very possible that Georgia Southern's statement that they would refuse a WAC offer specifically dealt with the possibility of playing in a division-less WAC.
Why is the WAC not talking?
So why does it appear has there not been any interest from the WAC membership in discussing an eastern division with eastern candidates?
Well, logic suggests it isn't the Olympic members. If the WAC adds an eastern division, the western schools would likely only have to play western schools in their division for the most part. Additionally, rather than having to scrape up 4 western members to complete a conference (including some of the horsemen), they could simply add Lamar and one western school to complete a western division.
Eventually, the eastern schools would probably break away—leaving the western members a cluster of six or seven western schools with which to rebuild. With that likely outcome in mind, an eastern division would be a very workable short term plan for the Olympic WAC members to keep some exclusivity in the WAC.
The football schools, on the other hand, would have to pay for costly football travel out east.
For NMSU, those travel costs and travel times might be bigger than they are in the WAC, but not horribly so. Flying to Georgia Southern is not horribly different than flying to Seattle. Getting to Appalachian State would be longer but not be significantly worse than traveling to Idaho.
Now travel from Idaho to schools like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and other eastern schools is far more difficult and costly. Idaho is probably the only WAC school dead set against a WAC eastern division.
If Idaho is not in favor of the idea and NMSU was not interested in helping rebuild the WAC, that would not leave Denver or Seattle any means to discuss the idea.
That might explain why the eastern candidates have not heard anything from the WAC.
Barbara Couture to the rescue?
It appears as if New Mexico President Barbara Couture could ride in and be the hero who gets WAC realignment back on track. Couture was voted the Chair of the WAC Board of Directors recently. She is a strong communicator with the public and, given her position in the WAC, seems likely to be a strong communicator among university presidents.
Given the fact that Boston was apparently not plugged in enough at NMSU to even know that Thompson communicated the "move on" message to NMSU, the WAC may need someone more plugged in and with more credibility—like President Couture—to take over voicing NMSU's stances on WAC realignment plans in the future.
Certainly it couldn't hurt with luring in other universities if Couture played a more prominent role in WAC efforts voicing public support and Boston held his tongue and focused more on his other responsibilities.
If NMSU was truly disinterested in the expansion activities of the WAC in the recent past and are now forced to take an active interest, that could be a game changer. Couture and NMSU would give Seattle and Denver a willing FBS partner with which to plan expansion plans that do not include eliminating the Big Sky members from expansion consideration or ignoring an eastern FCS membership option.
An entire range of plans and ideas could be on the table if the WAC is not tied to the Idaho/Big Sky plan.
A popular idea going around on fan forums is for the WAC to additionally sponsor FCS football. There does not seem to be anything in the rules preventing the WAC from taking that action.
If allowed, it could be a pretty brilliant plan to stay western but avoid the four horsemen. The Big Sky would have no leverage vs. a WAC that also sponsors FCS football. If the WAC also sponsored FCS sports, the odds of the WAC peeling away four Big Sky members skyrocket.
That is not an idea Idaho would necessarily love, as it alone doesn't help scheduling much in the short term. Additionally, it could cause bad blood between the Vandals and the rest of the Big Sky, screwing up Idaho's WAC escape plan.
But if NMSU is on board, it matters a lot less what Idaho thinks or does. Idaho going independent in football could be a blessing for the WAC, even if the Vandals take their Olympic sports to the MWC. No eastern school is thrilled about flying to Idaho for a football game, and there are a lot more on the fence eastern FBS candidates than western ones.
If NMSU is on board with Seattle and Denver, the WAC could add Lamar, Jacksonville State, and five other eastern FCS schools and actually end up with a relatively stable conference long term. NMSU would still be an outlier in football, but a western one rather than an eastern one.
The WAC could always troll the western US for good academic schools in the DII ranks who want to join the WAC as I-AAA members to complete their western division.
And it is all thanks to Craig Thompson
As a WAC fan, I'd like to thank Craig Thompson for making this statement. At worst, it protects NMSU's and Idaho's leaders from assuming that a MWC future is probably just around the corner. That can only help both schools make wiser future plans to protect their football programs.
And it gives Seattle and Denver a much better shot to rebuild a stronger WAC.
Follow-up: There is a lot of smoke flying today about realignment happenings in the WAC. Thanks again, Mr. Thompson.