College Football: The Western Athletic Conference Faces Uncertain Future

Todd KaufmannSenior Writer IAugust 24, 2010

BOISE, ID - NOVEMBER 28: Jeremy Avery #27 of the Boise State Broncos runs against the Fresno State Bulldogs during their game on November 28, 2008 at Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho.  (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)
Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images

This wasn't what commissioner Karl Benson hoped would happen. In fact, he was almost sure it wasn't going to happen.

To his dismay, and perhaps horror, the nightmare did become reality for the Western Athletic Conference commissioner as three of its top teams will depart for the greener pastures of the Mountain West Conference. It's the second such mutiny against the WAC since eight teams left the conference in 1999 and started the original Mountain West.

That year, it was Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming that jumped ship after the 1998 season. The eight teams became nine seven years later when TCU joined the conference.

Five years later, the WAC has again become the victim of an overnight raid as Boise State, Fresno State, and Nevada-Reno are headed out the door to become the newest members of the MWC, replacing Utah, departing for the Pac-10, and perhaps BYU, who is still yet to decide their own fate.

A few months ago, college football took a step that most knew was coming but there were few who knew it would come this soon. The Big 12 was dissolving right in front of our eyes and it looked like Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State were headed to the Pac-10 while Texas A&M was rumored to be headed to the Southeastern Conference.

Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri, Iowa State, Colorado, and Nebraska were left wondering what to do next. Colorado wanted a piece of that action, and was the first to jump ship to the Pac-10, most likely with the assumption that the four aforementioned teams would join them in a few short days.

Nebraska was next, accepting an invitation to be the newest member of the Big Ten as of the 2011 season.

When Texas, and the other three schools, not to mention Texas A&M, decided to stay put in the Big 12, it saved the conference from completely falling apart. Keeping teams like Kansas and Kansas State from having to join another conference.

While the Pac-10 and Big Ten were busy making moves and stealing teams out of other conferences, rumors began that the Mountain West was working on doing the same. Before they could do anything, the University of Utah announced it's intentions of leaving and joining the Pac-10.

Could the MWC really suffer the same fate they themselves had brought upon the WAC? It was starting to look that way.

Before that story took on a life of it's own, the MWC came back strong, stealing the WAC's strongest and most dominant team—Boise State.

The WAC couldn't have been more stunned by the news of the Broncos' departure. Their money maker, their national breadwinner, was going to spread their wings and leave the nest they had made themselves comfortable in for so long.

A conference that wasn't given a whole lot of respect to begin with, was losing one of the biggest reasons they were getting any talk at all. It seemed mediocrity had come sooner than Benson, not to mention the rest of the conference, had hoped for.

After Boise State's planned departure, Benson began talks with the likes of UC Davis, Portland State, and Sacramento State about joining the WAC and bringing the conference total to 11 teams with the hopes of one more to go to 12 teams altogether.

News like that made the likes of Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii cringe, but none of the three had gotten the invitation to leave the crumbling conference. At this point, they'd do anything to to get that phone call.

Little did they know, Benson and the rest of the Western Athletic Conference front office staff were working behind the scenes to bring back a team that had left the conference over 10 years ago. News broke last Wednesday morning that BYU was planning on jumping ship, taking their football program to independent status, and moving the rest of their sports to the WAC.

Benson and his co-horts had one-upped the Mountain West. They had the trump card and Benson was thumbing his nose at MWC commissioner Craig Thompson. He had waited for a moment like this.

A moment that he could rub it in the face of the mutinous MWC and take one of their biggest teams away. Utah had already left and it seemed BYU was headed in the same direction, or were they?

On Thursday, the MWC dropped a bomb on Benson and the WAC. Thompson waited for Benson to show his hand and go all in before he played his ace in the hole and blindsided Benson.

Though Utah was on it's way out, and with BYU still in limbo, the Mountain West brought in Fresno State and Nevada to further cripple an already hurting Western Athletic Conference. This was a blow the WAC couldn't possibly recover from.

The fallout, understandably, was swift, and it was angry. He called the move "selfish" and "disappointing." News also came out that the remaining WAC schools, after Boise State's departure, had signed a $5 million buyout clause that they would have to pay up on if they were to leave the conference.

While Fresno State allegedly did sign it, Nevada apparently did not according to school president Milt Glick. However, Benson still wants the Wolfpack to pay up on what he calls a "verbal agreement." With nothing signed on paper or anywhere else, Nevada won't pay a dime.

The MWC may not be done adding on, either. A few days after Fresno State and Nevada signed on the dotted line, rumors surfaced that the University of Houston was the next team to add their name to the new look MWC.

Bringing them on board, with BYU possibly coming back, brings the conference to 12 teams and allows them to split into two six-team divisions, thus creating a conference championship game.

You could go several different directions with any number of combinations in either division, but what it allows the MWC to do is jockey into position for an automatic BCS bid. It's not going to happen for at least another two to three years, but with a strong front of BYU, TCU, Boise State, Fresno State, and possibly Houston, along with a few good years here or there from Air Force and Nevada, it makes for a compelling argument.

After all of this, all of the posturing, all of the rumors, where does that leave the crippled and crumbling Western Athletic Conference?

Hawaii, Utah State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, New Mexico State, and Idaho are all left to pick up the pieces and wait to see which teams are handed invitations to leave their conference to join the WAC.

According to Utah State's athletic director, who released a open letter to their fans a day after Fresno State and Nevada defected, said they had received an invitation to join the MWC before the other two teams had but stayed "loyal" to the WAC.

That decision backfired and rumors have floated around that the Aggies want a do over and want to be re-invited to the "cool kids table." At this point, with BYU still in limbo, that invitation isn't coming until the Cougars make up their mind.

If BYU returns, Utah State is out of luck. If BYU goes independent, then maybe the Aggies have a small chance at getting the Mountain West to hand back the invitation that was torn in half and stomped on.

Another rumor that just recently surfaced was the University of Hawaii going independent. First BYU going independent, then Fresno State and Nevada defecting to the Mountain West, and Hawaii rounds it out with considering their own "independent" options.

If Hawaii does have those plans, they would be the fourth team to jump off the USS WAC, leaving five teams remaining to play a game of "every man for themselves." There's no telling if Hawaii is the only team considering a move out of the conference and who can blame them?

Louisiana Tech could use some cost cutting moves and a move to Conference USA might not be out of the realm of possibilities. It would save them money on air fare to places like Idaho, California, and Utah just to name a few.

Instead, they could travel to four different stops in Texas including Houston, El Paso, and Dallas not to mention Tulsa, Oklahoma. Each of these stops would save the school a ton of money on travel.

What happens from here is anyone's guess. With the college football season just a few weeks away, I don't know that we'll see any more breaking news on teams leaving until the end of the 2010 season.

After that, it's a whole new ballgame.


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