Dude, Where Is Your Conference, Karl? Looking at the WAC

Pete MisthaufenAnalyst IAugust 24, 2009

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 23: Quarterback Kellen Moore #11 of  the Boise State University Broncos throws against the TCU Horned Frogs during the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl at Qualcomm Stadium on December 23, 2008 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

For all of their great success as members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), Boise State and Fresno State would leave in a heartbeat to be members of the rival Mountain West Conference (MWC), a conference full of former WAC schools.

From 1999, thirteen teams have left the WAC and the conference is preparing for more departures.  Moreover, every single current WAC member except Hawaii previously held membership in the Big West Conference, a bottom tier Division One conference which dropped football after the 2000 season. 

Of course, every single one of the nine MWC schools fled the WAC before Boise State joined the conference.  Is there something wrong with the WAC or its commissioner, Karl Benson?

Early History

With the death of the old Pacific Coast Conference due to numerous scandals, western states college sports entered into a period of flux.  The current direct predecessors of the Pac-10 started with the Big Five (USC, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, and UW) in 1959. 

At the same time, BYU looked to organize another league in the West and met with representatives from Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.  Washington State joined the Big Five (making it the Big Six) in 1962, while Oregon and Oregon State decided not to join any conferences. 

The remaining schools created the WAC in 1962.  With five different conference champions in its first seven years (none of which was Arizona State), the conference appeared highly competitive. 

Conference teams regularly appeared in major bowl games, such as the Liberty, Sun, and Sugar Bowls, which was great, even few bowl games. 

ASU began to dominate the conference.  Coached by the legendary Frank Kush, ASU became an annual top-20 team, with many years in the final top 10, and an undefeated season in 1970, when the Sun Devils failed to get a berth in one of the top bowls and instead took a Peach Bowl bid.

Due to these difficulties in finding spots in major bowl games, WAC backers and Arizona locals decided to create a bowl game in Phoenix, named the Fiesta Bowl. 

The Fiesta Bowl immediately made its presence known in the college bowl world, getting top ten teams to come to play Arizona State.

First Defections and the Golden Era

Arizona and Arizona State, faced with a newly powerful BYU squad preventing easy conference champions, jumped at an opportunity to join the more prestigious Pac-8, creating the Pac-10 in 1978.  The Fiesta Bowl soon freed itself from the WAC and assumed its place at the top tier of college bowl games.

To replace these schools, the WAC brought in San Diego State (which had been a highly regarded team in the 1970s under Don "Air" Coryell) in 1978, Hawaii in 1979, and the Air Force Academy in 1980.

The WAC of the 1980s was now formed with nine teams.  Of these nine, all but UTEP and Hawaii are now members of the MWC.

The WAC of this era experienced substantial success.  BYU led the way with its annual top twenty ranking and 1984 national title, with AFA not far behind.  Wyoming had considerable success in the late 1980s.

While WAC schools were members of the CFA (whose membership included all the top college football teams not in the Big Ten or Pac-10, including the Big 8, SEC, ACC, SWC, WAC, and major independents), they were still largely considered the best of the rest, rather than a top tier conference.

To aid in this quest for top tier status, the WAC invited Big West champion Fresno State into the conference in 1992.  Fresno immediately made its presence known, becoming co-champions in a three way tie for the next two seasons.

By 1994, this strategy seemed to have paid off.  The WAC had three teams in the final AP top 20: BYU (18), Colorado State (16), and Utah (10).

After being expertly guided by Dr. Joe Keaney for 12 years, the conference brought in a new commissioner who seemed to fit perfectly in 1994.

Enter Karl Benson

Karl Benson comes from the West, having graduated from Boise State and worked as an assistant basketball coach at Utah.  In 1986, he joined the NCAA in its compliance division, but soon rose to head of NCAA championships.

He then went on to be the MAC commissioner in 1990, where he served until selected to head the WAC.

Seems like the perfect commissioner, right?

So, the question remains, "Why do your teams keep leaving you, Karl?"

King Karl immediately worked to improve the WAC's TV and bowl deals, without significant success.

In spite of its considerable success in 1994, the WAC was again left out of the new Bowl Alliance, even though no other conference had more teams in the top 20.

Now, the conference experienced too much parity in 1995, as there was a four-way tie for the conference championship, and the teams had lost their important OOC games.  The conference was left without a ranked team for the second time in three years.

Super WAC

In 1996, the CFA blew up, as did the Southwest Conference (a demise started in 1994).  The WAC immediately attempted to find a way to capitalize on the situation.

So, what was the plan?  Expand, baby!  And not just any expansion, but expand out to 16 members, all of which would play football.

Now, adding six new teams to a conference that already has ten seems absolutely silly in hindsight.  But the WAC had a idea for conquering college football.

First, he added teams in major TV markets, such as TCU and SMU in DFW, Rice in Houston, and San Jose State in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as smaller areas such as Tulsa and UNLV. 

The idea was all about expanding the conference footprint and thereby gaining space in newspapers and local TV broadcasts in these regions across the country.

Second, he started a conference championship game in Las Vegas, broadcast on ABC.

Third, in order to manage the conference, he split the teams into four quadrants.  Each group of four teams would stay in the same division for two years and then switch.  Traditional rivalries would be destroyed, as the core teams on the old WAC would never be in the same division.

The first year of this plan actually turned out ok.  BYU, outside of early season defeat at Washington, ran the table, reaching 12-1 to end the regular season.

The WAC championship game featured a battle of two top 20 teams, 12-1 BYU (No. 6 AP) and (No. 20 Wyoming).  BYU won a close battle in Las Vegas, but faced the possibility of returning to the Holiday Bowl.  Luckily, with the demise of the Southwest Conference, the Cotton Bowl provided an invitation to the Cougars, to face Kansas State. 

With the victory, BYU finished the season 14-1 and at No. 5 in the polls.

The 1997 regular season ended with the conference having two top 25 teams in Colorado State and Air Force, but with the divisional structure, the WAC championship game featured No. 20 Colorado State(9-2) vs. Dennis Franchione's unranked New Mexico Lobos (9-2).  Colorado State went on to win the game and their bowl game to finish 11-2.

The 1998 regular season started with Colorado State ranked at No. 15.  During the season, Wyoming and Air Force would also break into the top 25.  The conference championship game featured No. 17 Air Force (11-1, with only a single point loss to Dennis Franchione's TCU team) versus an unranked BYU (9-2). 

Air Force won the game on a bitter cold day in Las Vegas and won their bowl game to finish at No. 10 in the Coaches Poll and No. 13 in the AP.

The Conference Split

Before the season, a rebellion had developed against the misrule of King Karl.  BYU and Utah in particular disliked losing the traditional rivalries with Colorado State and Air Force.  Concerns continued to develop regarding the academics of Fresno State (and accusations and rumors flew around that Fresno players were only students in name only).

Two main problems caused the end of the Super WAC—exclusion from the BCS and limited basketball bids in the NCAA tournament.

Being left out of the BCS in spite of expansion to sixteen seemed to invalidate the arguments that had been made for the creation of the super conference.  If losing traditional rivalries did not result in top tier status, why even have the enlarged conference?

Picking basketball success over football needs seems silly to most football fans, but receiving only three bids for a sixteen conference really annoyed some conference leaders.

So, meeting at an airport in late May of 1998, the presidents of Wyoming, Utah, BYU, Colorado State, Air Force, decided to form a new conference, which largely reflected the pre-1992 WAC, with the replacement of Hawaii and UTEP by UNLV.

Picking up the pieces

The remaining teams and King Karl had been rejected.  King Karl had to work to rebuild his conference.  In 1999, not a single WAC school appeared in the AP poll, while three different MWC schools made appearances.

Nevada joined the conference in 2000, bringing the conference back to nine teams.  TCU began the season ranked, while not a single MWC conference team started ranked, and climbed to No. 9. 

At the height of its success, TCU left the conference for CUSA in 2001, casting doubt on the continued vision of King Karl.

Left with only eight teams again, Benson brought in two new schools in 2001, Boise State and Louisiana Tech (though the idea of a Louisiana school in a "western" conference just seems plan silly). 

Conference membership stabilized for the next four years.  It looked like the worst was over.  The conference had bowl deals and a good ESPN deal that provided national exposure.

In 2001, Fresno State climbed as high as No. 8.  Boise State finished at No. 15 in 2002 and No. 13 in 2003.  In 2004, Boise climbed as high as No. 10, but not high enough to get a BCS bid (given to Utah).

Effects of the ACC's Great Raid

Far from the East Coast, the WAC still suffered from the aftershocks of the ACC's raid on the Big East in 2004.  The Big East in turn stole three teams from CUSA.  CUSA (who also lost TCU to the MWC) in turn brought in UTEP, Rice, Tulsa, and SMU, leaving the WAC with six schools.

It seems very clear as to why Tulsa, Rice and SMU would leave the WAC for CUSA, but UTEP had been a member of the conference since 1968 and would be six hundred miles from the nearest team in the conference.  UTEP felt CUSA was a better conference than the WAC and better fit the school, even though it lost an opportunity to have a close in-conference rival in New Mexico State, less than an hour up I-10.

Looking anxiously for any football teams, King Karl brought in three of the very worst programs in FBS, Utah State, New Mexico State, and Idaho.

While both Hawaii and Boise State have reached BCS bowls since this final defection, the conference has suffered a severe hit to its reputation.  Georgia proved Hawaii to be a paper tiger and Boise State has run through the conference without serious opposition.  Few expect Boise State to face any real challenges this year.

Looking to the Future: The Departure of Boise State

Boise State would leave the conference without even thinking twice about it.  It has made its interest in joining the MWC extremely clear.  In spite of being the ESPN darling, Boise State would rather play in a conference without an ESPN deal.  The Broncos face several significant hurdles.

First, academically, it is below every single institution in the MWC.  While only four of the MWC schools rank in the top tier of national universities in the latest USNews ratings (BYU, Colorado State, Utah, TCU), Air Force is top school academically, just like the other service academies, and the other four schools all rank among national universities. 

While academics have little relation to football, it is likely that Boise State would be required to make a significant upgrade to academics to become a conference member.

Second, the MWC has no incentive to bring in Boise State without BCS automatic bid status.  At this time, the entry of Boise State would only lead to more in-conference losses, thereby weakening the chance for any team to be a "BCS buster". 

Third, Boise, while a growing city, adds little to the television market strength for the conference.  BYU already has significant support in a state with a large Mormon population.  Unlike recent addition TCU, Boise State would not bring entry into one the nation's top market.

Even with these hurdles, Boise State may be MWC-bound soon anyway.  The first thing that would happen is expansion, but not necessarily the expansion of the MWC.  Any expansion by any of the Big Six conferences would have ripple effects across the college football landscape, as happened with ACC expansion.

If an opening would happen in the Big 12 (due to Missouri or Iowa State joining the Big Ten), the MWC could lose one of its star programs, causing a need for Boise State.  If the Pac-10 ever desired to expand, the MWC could lose one or two teams (depending upon whether the Pac-10 could get Colorado), thereby causing a significant hole in the MWC.

The other possible expansion is if the MWC wanted to go to 12 teams.  While MWC members are generally gun-shy about large conferences given the experience of the Super WAC, a 12-team conference with a conference championship game makes more sense than a ten team conference playing a round-robin schedule.

As the Pac-10 has demonstrated over the last several years, playing a nine-game conference schedule increases the number of in-conference losses, thereby leading to the perception that the conference has weak teams.  Ten team conferences without the round-robin have a problem of multiple conference champions that have not faced each other. The MWC would be wise to avoid either route.

A twelve team conference with a conference championship game seems much more realistic.  It leads to easier conference schedules and an huge game at the end of the season.  Most of the problems associated with other conferences' championship games have been related to location. 

The WAC championship game proved one of the few successful aspects of the defunct Super WAC.

Looking to the Grim Future after Boise State leaves

With expansion to 12, Boise State is a sure fit.  But what other WAC teams would depart?

Hawaii is an unlikely team.  The travel expenses related to playing Hawaii far out-weigh the benefits of recruiting and the Hawaii road-trip for fans.

Fresno State has little chance, given that the academics of the Bulldogs were one the of great concerns that led to the MWC in the first place.

Nevada is a possibility, given that it is a superior academic institution to UNLV and fits geographically, with success in football and basketball recently.

San Jose State provides access to the San Francisco Bay area market.

Of course, the MWC could look try to grab a CUSA team like Tulsa.

So, in the case of MWC expansion to twelve teams, two or three WAC teams would depart, most likely Boise State, Nevada, and San Jose State.

Now where would Karl go then?

Back to the Sun Belt!  But would any of those teams want to leave?  North Texas?  Maybe.  Louisiana-Monroe?  Maybe.  Louisiana-Lafayette.  Maybe.  But a WAC with only Hawaii, Fresno State, Idaho, Utah State, New Mexico State, and Louisiana Tech is not a very attractive conference to jump to.  Travel would be difficult.

End of the WAC?

King Karl would then face a very difficult decision.  There are no more FBS football programs to grab.  The demise of programs such as Long Beach State, Fullerton State, and Pacific in the '90s depleted the available programs in the West.

King Karl could benefit from several programs currently starting in Texas, such as Texas State and UT-San Antonio, or inducing some of the FCS schools to move up, such as Portland State, UC Davis, or Idaho State. 

In doing so, he will ruin what little credibility that the WAC would have left.  Goodbye TV money (which would likely leave with Boise State anyway).  Goodbye bowl affiliations.  Goodbye conference.

For Fresno State and Hawaii, few good options exist.  Ultimately, they must hope for Pac-10 and MWC expansion, so that MWC would actually need to bring in these two schools as well.

Louisiana Tech should be able to find a home in CUSA, especially if the Big East raids the conference again in an effort to gain credibility.

Idaho, New Mexico State, and Utah State are three of the worst programs in FBS could only hope that the Sun Belt would even consider their re-admission.

Will the WAC still play football ten years from now at the FBS level?  Not likely.  If it still does, it will be consider the very worst of the FBS conferences.

And so, the future for King Karl and the WAC looks very bleak indeed.