Will the WAC Choose the Four Horsemen or an FBS Future?
OK, so the analogy is a little harsh.
It's still an appropriate analogy.
The WAC appears to be considering submitting to the cruel whims of fate if their efforts to rebuild as an FBS conference with the members they want prove too difficult and time consuming.
There is a thought that the WAC membership's goal is to satisfy the NCAA's minimum requirements as an Olympic multi-sport conference and then to see what football options present themselves in the future (think the University of Montana and Montana State).
In his last press conference, the WAC's Interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd said the following prior to his question and answer session:
"...As you look at the possibility of the WAC sustaining itself as a non-football playing conference, or in essence adding anywhere from three to five non-football playing schools, is that possible? The answer to that question is "Yes, it's possible." I can't and won't get into details on it, but I think we all know that, especially in the western part of the country, which institutions are out there as possibilities. What it takes from a WAC standpoint is that...Our board ultimately will make the decision as to the direction we'll take."
It is interesting in that he pushed this scenario alone in his introduction. If this is the leading plan, the thought appears to be more risky than Hurd may be thinking. It may represent bad logic brought on by group-think among him and his employees.
The WAC should avoid the Four Horsemen of Western Conference Shark Jumping.
The Four Western Horsemen
"And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, 'Come and see.' And I saw, and behold a white horse: And he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: And he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, 'Come and see.'
And there went out another horse that was red: And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: And there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, 'Come and see.' And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, 'A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.'
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, 'Come and see.'
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: And his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
- Book of Revelation 6:1-8
In the Bible, the Four Horsemen lay out as Conquest (rather than Pestilence as the first rider is known in non-religious circles), War, Famine and Death. (Some scholars interpret things even further saying the first rider represents military conquest while the second rider represents civil war more than just war itself.)
The First Horseman - "Conquest" - Utah Valley University
The first horseman is Utah Valley University. Like the debate about whether the first horseman of the apocalypse represents righteousness or an evil, there can be a healthy debate whether adding UVU to the WAC is a good or bad thing.
On the negative side, they do not currently play football, they are very close to BYU (a strong draw), and they are a lower ranked university than current WAC anchor Boise State plus they have an MLB affiliate playing in their ballpark, which can't help baseball ticket sales.
On the positive side, they have one of the largest enrollments in Utah and their growth rate suggests they will have one of the largest enrollments in the country in 10 years. That means they will have a very large alumni base in the Salt Lake City DMA. The NBA Developmental League squatter in their arena, the Utah Flash, is gone, so UVU does have a chance to build a better turnout from local fans.
Their location is centrally located in the WAC footprint. They currently offer 15 sports and have a $7.9 million dollar budget. If the report that UVU has a plan to play football is true, it seems possible they could afford to offer more sports.
In many ways, replacing Olympic only Boise State with Utah Valley could be a wash to a slight gain.
And should UVU start playing football, most would consider UVU an upgrade for the WAC over Boise State without football. Could UVU carry their own weight in the WAC? It is very possible.
The Second Horseman - "War" - Cal State Bakersfield
The second horseman, California State University Bakersfield, has a chance to introduce a lot of strife into the WAC. Like the second horseman, they could represent civil war. While it is fine for schools in the WAC to consider California to be part of their historic footprint and to harbor some desire to regain a presence out there, the candidates who would play FBS football are to the east. Adding CSUB could represent adding an unneeded travel hurdle to landing those schools.
CSUB is a small public university at the Division I level with about 7700 enrolled students. While Bakersfield is a reasonable sized city within a large metro area (over 890,000 people), they are in a small DMA which hurts their TV appeal. CSUB also has to compete with the Bakersfield Jam, an NBADL team, for public ticket dollars.
Further, CSUB doesn't play football. They only offer 13 sports. They are a public school in a state that is dramatically cutting budgets for state schools.
The WAC had a lone California school in San Jose State that did play FBS football and they proved incapable of luring in other California schools to play in the FBS.
Why would CSUB, a school the lowly Big West has passed on for years, provide any lure to California schools when FBS member San Jose State could not? The Big West is almost exclusively comprised of California public schools. Their opinion of the value of CSUB should be clear by now.
SJSU proved incapable of luring CA schools into the WAC. Unless you are landing CSUB and at least one more CSU school going into the invitation process, the value isn't there.
For the WAC to survive, its members schools have to acknowledge that travel costs will be large—they have to accept it as the cost of being in a major conference. It is a cost of doing business. Adding CSUB could add noise that prevents the delivery of that message.
The WAC has already dealt with the travel issues having a single California school creates. It is very likely that when Lamar was under consideration, San Jose State didn't want to add more members in Texas. That was probably a huge reason Lamar was not added. That move appears to have been a catastrophic mistake for the conference. At this point, adding a lone California school with state created budget issues would seem to be inviting more of the same small-time, self-centered thinking.
CSUB does have access to a nice arena (9333 seat Rabbank Arena), a decent athletic budget ($9.3 million) and a fairly strong history in basketball, but that certainly does not appear to outweigh the potential divisiveness their addition could bring or all the negatives CSUB carries.
The Third Horseman - "Famine" - UT Pan American
This one was easy. Despite being in a conference with the largest footprint in America and the greatest travel costs, following years as an independent which also has huge travel costs, The University of Texas Pan American has a very small athletic budget ($5.7 million).
That implies that they have never decided to feed their programs the money to make them more competitive. They don't spend the money to feed their athletic programs. They don't hire and retain winning, name-brand coaches who can recruit the area.
They offer 14 sports.
The Sunbelt and UTPA went their seperate ways in 1998 over a variety of UTPA issues. UTPA has twice sought membership in the Southland Conference in the past decade and twice has been passed over. Let me restate that.
The Southland Conference passed on them. Twice.
And it doesn't appear to have even been close.
It boggles the mind that any WAC fan can be pushing UTPA as a strong WAC candidate.
From the perspective of a follower of realignment, it appears other conferences do not seriously consider UTPA as a candidate. Those conferences appear to have caught on that UTPA will do the absolute minimum to remain at the Division I level. It appears that "just being there" is the esteem that UTPA's leadership sees collegiate sports offering.
For a conference to get better, you need schools who want to win in at least some sports and may be willing to spend in certain areas to increase their chances. There is no indication that UTPA thinks that way.
They only offer a single revenue sport and their facility for hosting that sport is one of the oldest in Texas at the Division I level, having been built in 1969.
Their athletic program appears to be dying on the vine because it isn't being fed. If the WAC doesn't invite them, it looks like a matter of time before UTPA ends up in the Division II or Division III ranks.
The sad thing is that it isn't like UTPA couldn't be a strong WAC member.
There are good assets there. They have an enrollment of over 17,000. Texas state law allows for students to vote for a dedicated athletic fee of up to $20 a semester hour. Quick math suggests that could be about $10.2 million a year.
An athletic budget in the $10-16 million range would be more than adequate to allow for strong programs in sports that could generate revenue and exposure in that DMA like basketball, baseball, and men's soccer. It could fund major facilities improvements. It could also allow UTPA to hire and keep experienced or competent athletic directors and winning coaches.
Their leadership simply seems to lack any interest in actually competing. They seem unwilling to put the issue to the students and covertly "campaign" for the vote to pass as other Texas schools have done recently.
An association with a school that thinks like that will cost the WAC a lot of prestige. A lot of people think WAC schools already think like that. Adding UTPA today would confirm that thinking to the critics, and make the WAC appear much, much weaker.
The Fourth Horseman - "Death" - Chicago State
Not only does Chicago State's athletic program appear to be faltering, many would argue so does their University. Their enrollment dropped from around 10,000 in the early 1990's to just over 7000 today. Their graduation rate in 2007 was a staggering 16.2 percent.
While they are in Chicago which is a major plus, this is a Division I athletic program that stinks of death. This is not the kind of university a WAC school should want the public to see as a peer.
Chicago State is like a lesser UT Pan American. With the ridiculous travel costs in the Great West, CSU has only a $4.2 million athletic budget. That is less than half of CSUB's budget. UTPA sponsors 14 sports.
At minimum, any discussion with CSU should start with the question, "How are you going to double your athletic budget? (Because the votes are not there for you otherwise...)"
The likely fallout of a horsemen driven future
The current WAC membership is a pretty good collection of academic schools (if you don't count one-foot-out-the-door member Boise State). A conference of strong academic schools is usually fairly stable as presidents are loathe to leave that kind of association.
Adding three to four forgettable academic brands kills the potential to build a fairly prestigious conference of which WAC University Presidents and Regents could be proud.
The mass exodus of former WAC members really gives the WAC a chance to rebuild as a more academically prestigious conference. Member schools would be far more loyal to that kind of WAC. That kind of future offers the stability that hasn't been present in the WAC since BYU left.
Once you add a cluster of non-prestigious schools and that becomes your conference identity, it is almost impossible to correct that perception. It would take a near-extinction event, like the passing of the dinosaurs or the passing of San Jose State, UT Arlington and Texas State. Those things just don't happen all the time. The WAC should not waste their second chance to build a conference the right way.
What is the difference between an I-AAA WAC with CSUB, UVU and either Boise State or UTPA and the Summit League?
I-AAA conferences make their living off basketball. The Summit just lost one of their best basketball schools, Oral Roberts, to the Southland Conference, a conference that most think only cares about football. What does that say about the Summit as a I-AAA conference?
The WAC would be the Summit League of the mountain region.
This move will not do anything to stabilize the WAC. Schools like Denver, Seattle and Idaho will redouble their efforts to escape being associated with the horsemen.
For example is a school like UCSD, which as a fringe candidate took the unusual step of publicly condemning the old WAC membership's academics as substandard, going to look favorably on joining a conference that features three to five Boise State-level academic schools.
Also, do not forget the WAC would be giving three-plus votes to the horsemen. That could lead to more schools getting invited in the future who schools like Denver might have a problem with in prestige terms.
Let's take a walk down the logic trail.
Adding the Horsemen may drive off Idaho
NMSU and Idaho are not financially strong members of the FBS ranks.
The NCAA is about to enter their bi-annual rules re-write year. Several of their Division I membership rules were re-written in 2011 to help a much stronger WAC survive. A number of those rules are written in somewhat ambiguous language. There may be an interest in cleaning up those rules a bit.
While the NCAA FBS leadership generally write rules that favor current FBS members, the support for NMSU and Idaho may be a bit soft. There may be some feeling that neither school's leadership has done enough for their athletic programs. Or that with effectively voting control in the WAC, the Idaho and NMSU leadership groups haven't done the bare minimum and blessed a plan to rebuild an FBS WAC.
Let's talk worst case scenarios. Let's say the WAC invites the horsemen and the NCAA decides the WAC has not taken a serious enough interest in rebuilding their FBS conference so they tweak the rules to strip the WAC of the ability to invite schools up to the FBS level.
Then the only thing inviting the horsemen has done is to have made permanent the WAC's evolution into a western version of the Summit. It puts a ceiling on that cracked foundation.
If at that point Idaho bails for the Big Sky (very likely) and the new WAC is down to six schools, you have two natural, three-school voting blocks. The one with Denver, Seattle and NMSU may prefer prestigious members, but how likely is that conference to land those types of candidates?
Isn't it more likely a school like NMSU will jump to vote with the other voting block to vote in a body for seven members?
There is also the possibility that some or all of the five non-football schools might form a voting block making adding more football members more difficult.
Adding just UVU as Boise State's replacement would be bearable, but adding three or more of these schools amounts to drilling a dry well.
Reducing the WAC's appeal
CSUB has been trying to get into the Big West for years. UVU has approached the Big Sky. UTPA has been trying to get back into the Southland for years. Chicago State is a former member of the Summit who does not appear to have any support for a return.
Adding these pariahs does not seem likely to help the WAC convince individual members of the Big West, Big Sky, Southland and Summit that the WAC is the conference to join.
A better path
I have a better plan that is about a week away from unveiling. For today, let's think in general, big-picture terms.
It is much better for the WAC to admit mid-to-low-ranked regional universities who play football than one who does not.
For example, adding Jacksonville State (regional university No. 85 in the South) over Cal State Bakersfield (regional university No. 88 in the West) just makes sense.
If both schools represent some travel, admitting Jacksonville State is very understandable by a conference that is trying to rebuild to remain an FBS conference. It is likely to be viewed by others as a "cost of doing business"—with the WAC's position dictating membership choices.
On the other hand, adding CSUB would read as an active choice. They don't have football, so adding them would amount to choosing to be associated with them over everyone in the FCS, I-AAA or Division II world. That would seem to convey some feeling that they are peers.
Does the WAC membership really want to send that message to future candidates?
If the WAC were to invite Lamar and Jacksonville State—even on the terms that both replace an existing men's sport with soccer to help the WAC's sports count—both would likely jump on the offer.
If Lamar left the Southland, Sam Houston State would probably be very receptive to a WAC invite on the same terms.
Lamar and Sam Houston State are classified in the US News rankings as national universities.
How different is it for Idaho to fly to Sam Houston, Lamar and Jacksonville State vs. flying to Texas State, UTSA and Louisiana Tech? Not very.
This trio may not be elite schools and they may take the WAC footprint in an eastern direction, but they are respectable schools who could put that WAC in a much better position to survive and prosper than three horsemen would.
As the WAC missed inviting any FCS schools by the deadline this year, no new WAC schools will be starting their two-year transition in the 2013-2014 season.
It certainly won't be an easy transition, but you can see a path with FCS upgrades.
A Chronology for FCS upgrades
If invited now, the candidate schools would probably need to move their Olympic sports over for the 2013-14 season to help the WAC put together a full schedule. It may cost some cash to get out early, but that is probably enough lead time for the Southland and Ohio Valley Conferences to adjust their schedules for next year.
In football, the trio could complete their first year of transition (usually featuring mostly FCS teams) in 2014-15 and their second year (usually featuring mostly FBS teams) in 2015-16.
This could fill home dates for Idaho and NMSU deep in the season starting in 2015-16 when other conferences are playing in-conference games. There is a chance the trio may potentially offer some help in that regard in the 2014-2015 season depending on what the NCAA rules look like by next year, but really the point is that their Olympic sports could be moved in 2013-14 to help satisfy the Olympic sports membership minimums.
A scenario like this with three FBS schools joining the schedule is far more likely to retain Idaho—even if Vandal leadership may vote against admitting this particular trio over travel costs.
It doesn't matter what Idaho thinks, says or argues behind closed doors. It matters what Idaho is going to do.
Plans of talking to the Big Sky or adding the horsemen may be more favorable to the Vandal's pocketbook in the short term, but neither one is likely to make the WAC more attractive to Idaho in the long term. That is the consideration the other three core WAC schools have to keep in mind.
As FBS schools, the FCS trio would offer a lot more prestige than three of the horsemen.
FCS candidates offer more flexibility
A WAC featuring Lamar, SHSU and Jacksonville State would offer a lot of flexibility.
With five FBS schools in hand long term by 2014, western FCS schools in that WAC footprint like Portland State, North Dakota, Montana and Montana State could start to come around. The Montana schools seem to have assembled a series of alliances to keep western FCS schools from jumping to the WAC. The Montanas appear to be ramping up for a move to the FBS in a few years. Maybe such a move would be more reasonable to them in 2014 or 2015.
Or that WAC could have the eastern legitimacy to land three, good eastern FCS schools (say Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and James Madison) to get the conference back to eight football members.
The WAC could add the best possible pair of I-AAA schools in the US regardless of location and then they could have cost saving divisional play—a likely necessity for a healthy and stable WAC.
Or maybe by adding the eastern FCS schools, the Montanas feel motivated to escape the crumbling ranks of the FCS elites. Perhaps they could finish out a 12-member WAC.
FCS candidates protect the future viability of the conference as an FBS conference.
If the WAC has five FBS members and two to three I-AAA members, the WAC will try to rebuild as an FBS conference. There is no question of new member votes moving away from that potential future goal.
While there are exceptions, FBS conferences are generally far more attractive to TV networks and on the whole far more prestigious and lucrative than I-AAA conferences.
While the WAC is focused on getting to seven schools, there are a lot of ways to get there. The WAC should not feel bound to only look at current I-AAA members.
An expansion plan based on FCS candidates offers the WAC schools a better future.
Shouldn't that be more important than how easy it is to complete the next stage of expansion?
Wrong thinking is punishable
I recognize that Hurd probably is desperate for any confirmed future for the WAC and at this point seems to be pushing for the easiest one to bring about. Per Hurd, "My priority would be to sustain the WAC as a non-football playing conference in 2013-14, at this point."
While that is an absolutely appropriate thought, it does not dictate that all new members must be non-football members as Hurd appears to be thinking to consider the horsemen.
The thinking appears to be "survive today and deal with the fallout tomorrow." The trouble is you can't think that way and succeed.
There was talk a few years ago that Karl Benson came to his membership with a plan to invite UC Davis and Cal Poly into the WAC. It is a reasonable premise to believe. While both schools are academically prestigious, there was a stigma on inviting schools from the FCS ranks, so it is alleged the WAC membership passed. In spite of their lack of cushion should members be raided, the WAC chose to deal with the fallout tomorrow.
When tomorrow arrived, the WAC was crushed.
At any moment, a conference membership has strengths to allow them to land attractive members. You have to maximize your assets. If you don't play to those strengths, you are dealing from a position of weakness and your conference is just going to get weaker.
Adding the horsemen is dealing from a position of weakness.
In fact, considering that every western conference from which the WAC is considering poaching members from has firmly rebuked one of the horsemen. Adding the horsemen may be the ultimate expression of dealing from a position of weakness in a western conference.
This kind of move could have a long-term crippling impact on the perception of the WAC.
My next editorial will cover in detail a plan for a better future for the WAC based on where they are today.
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