It has been an up and down summer and fall for Craig Thompson and the Mountain West Conference.
The summer began with rumors of Boise State joining the MWC, bringing the conference to 10 members (including Utah, BYU, TCU and Boise) and a near guarantee of BCS-AQ status.
Almost immediately, things began to fall apart. First, Utah announced its move to the Pac-10 along with Colorado.
As the 2010 academic season neared, rumors began to surface that the WAC was attempting to get BYU and several other MWC schools to "return home" and leave the Mountain West.
To his credit, Thompson acted swiftly, offering bids to WAC members Nevada, Fresno State and Utah State (Nevada and Fresno ended up accepting).
Thompson's best efforts couldn't keep Brigham Young, happy though. The Cougars left the MWC for football independence and placed its basketball and non-revenue sports in the West Coast Conference.
It appeared that things would slow down as the school year began. However, the Big East voted to consider expansion to try to fortify itself against raids (and keep its BCS-AQ status) by adding two to four football-playing members.
TCU and the conference seemed like a match made in reactionary heaven. At the time, it appeared TCU would miss out on a BCS bowl in spite of its undefeated record and top five ranking. Membership in the Big East would ensure that a situation like that would never happen again.
What should be the MWC's Next Move
By adding TCU (one of the country's most talked-about football programs), the Big East would regain some football credibility lost when Miami (FL), Virginia Tech and Boston College departed for the ACC.
Again, Thompson made a swift and wise decision. Hawaii was added (as a football-only member) to the (then) 10-team MWC, and the conference made it clear they were looking at options for team 12. Prognosticators (myself included) began considering and debating the merits of about a dozen programs. SMU, Houston, UTEP, Utah State, Tulsa and Montana were some of the most common names.
This morning, the game changed again. Multiple news sources are reporting that TCU was offered (and accepted) an all-sport bid to the Big East. It will likely be joined by either one or three more teams before this round of expansion is over.
Popular Big East expansion candidates now include (in no particular order) Central Florida, Memphis, Houston and East Carolina.
The Mountain West is now left with three options moving forward.
1. Go Forward with 10 Members
While in the Mountain West, TCU was a significant geographic outlier, over 500 miles form any of its fellow MWC members. By standing pat, the conference can rein in its geographic footprint and avoid some of the problems that plagued the 16-team WAC.
This is certainly a choice that the Mountain West would be wise to consider. However there are too many issues.
For starters, when recruiting the four WAC schools (Boise, Fresno, Nevada and Hawaii), I'm certain that increased competition and exposure were a big part of the conference's pitch. To abandon that now would serve as a sort of slap in the face to the MWC's newest members.
Though a BCS-AQ bid is pretty much out of the question, Craig Thompson owes it to his membership to at least explore adding two more schools and a conference championship game.
If this is the direction the MWC chooses to go, we may finally see a slowdown in conference expansion talks. If Thompson continues to expand, things will only get more convoluted.
2. Add Two Members from Outside Texas
For those of you that don't know much about the WAC's 16-team setup, geography ranging from Houston, TX to Idaho and Hawaii was one of the biggest reasons for the conference's failure. Because of this, I think the Mountain West should be hesitant to become a league that covers the exact same footprint as the old WAC.
If the conference chooses to expand, Craig Thompson must consider remaining in its current geographic footprint (read: without Texas/Oklahoma schools).
If the conference chooses to go this route, there are five programs that will get consideration: Utah State, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Idaho and Montana. If the Mountain West chooses to go this route, we can officially say goodbye to the WAC.
Up to this point, conference expansion has been fueled by two key factors: football success and media market size. Utah State would return the conference to TV sets in Utah (lost with the defections of BYU and Utah).
Montana (an FCS powerhouse) would add some football credibility. Montana has already indicated that it isn't particularly interested in moving its football program to the FBS.
Overall, the MWC doesn't add much in either of the two key areas.
Keep in mind that the four WAC defectors came to the MWC for increased football competition and exposure. Adding weak football programs would stand in direct contrast to the promises/assurances that were either made by Craig Thompson or assumed by the four schools.
If this is the direction, my money is on Utah State and New Mexico State as well as adding a non-football playing complement to Hawaii (such as Gonzaga). Though not adding much in terms of football power, this move would place firmly in the MWC in the top tier of "mid-major" basketball conferences. To my sensibilities, this seems like the most unlikely option.
3. Add Two Members from Texas/Oklahoma
Losing TCU caused two major issues. The first is the loss of the pipeline to Texas's vast media and recruiting resources.
It also marked the loss of the MWC's only private school. This is important because a conference with a private school as a member does not have to make as much of its financial information public as a conference with all public schools. This is why the SEC has held on to Vanderbilt, the Big 12 kept Baylor and the Big Ten still has Northwestern.
Adding Texas/Oklahoma schools is the only way for the MWC to fully absorb the blow of a TCU defection.
To this point, both options I have presented leave the MWC with either 10 or 12 public schools. Electing to maintain its presence in the Texas and/or Oklahoma allows the MWC to consider private universities like SMU, Tulsa and Rice. If the Mountain West decides to go to 12 members, it will almost certainly include one of these three private universities for the aforementioned reasons.
Though a solid football program, Tulsa would be an extreme geographic outlier (over 500 miles a from the closest school, New Mexico, and 650 away number two, Air Force). Rice, on the other hand, has neither geography nor football success on its side. Rice is a last resort option.
Due to its location in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and recent football success (under coaching guru June Jones and the Run-and-Shoot offense), SMU seems to be the most likely candidate to replace TCU. Winning the C-USA championship next week (against Big East candidate Central Florida) would go a long way to securing an MWC bid.
If you assume SMU will be school No. 11, the search now begins for a 12th and final member. The school chosen will need to serve as a travel partner and geographic rival to SMU. Doing that would hopefully prevent SMU from making a TCU-like defection five years down the road. Aforementioned Tulsa deserves consideration, as do public schools Houston and UTEP.
UTEP fits very well in the MWC geography and has a long history with all of the conference's schools (from its time in the WAC). It has a ready-made rivalry with New Mexico as well as SMU. UTEP brings a credible basketball program and an underrated media market (El Paso). Though not as successful, the UTEP football team outdraws Houston by nearly 15,000 fans per game.
On the other side of the Texas coin is Houston. The Houston program has experienced a renaissance under head coach Mike Sumlin and QB Case Keenum. The Cougars have beaten multiple top-25 teams recently. It also brings a solid basketball program (anyone remember Phi Slama Jama?) and the nation's fourth-largest media market.
However, UH has always had trouble competing with Texas A&M and Texas for relevance in the Houston market. TV ratings and attendance have been painfully low for UH, especially given its market and recent success.
Also, Keenum will graduate before Houston can join the MWC, and Sumlin may be leaving sooner than later for a higher-profile job. There is no guarantee that Houston will be able to maintain its current success without Keenum and Sumlin.
Lastly, Houston is in consideration for Big East membership as a geographic rival and travel partner for TCU.
This is the most likely case in my book. SMU is my top choice for private school membership (followed by Tulsa, then Rice) with Houston as the leading candidate as school No. 12 (UTEP is a close second with Tulsa as option No. 3). The MWC stands to lose too much if it abandons the Dallas market and doesn't have a private school as a member.
As far as I can see, adding two Texas/Oklahoma schools (including a private school) is in the best interest of the MWC. Standing pat with 10 members is a close second. Expanding but not including any private schools or Texas schools makes no sense.