Hawaii and Fresno State Need to Lead for the WAC To Succeed

Tobi WritesAnalyst IAugust 4, 2010

GAINESVILLE, FL - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Greg McMackin of the Hawaii Warriors watches the action before the game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on August 30, 2008 in Gainesville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

The WAC announced a moratorium on expansion recently. They will not be adding any new football members for now.  I am disappointed that the WAC did not choose to add any non-football members either.

I understand the logic of postponing a move to a larger football membership rather than trying to force such an expansion to occur today, but I am disappointed by the move, as it was apparently in part mandated by a lack of support from key member institutions, specifically Hawaii and Fresno. 

At least some boosters and employees at both schools imagine their invitation to the MWC is just around the corner: "It has to be, doesn't it?"

Delusions of Grandeur

I really like both schools, but expecting this is crazy. They have carried this delusion with them of favored status in the eyes of the MWC for years.

There is no reason to believe either school is ahead of Houston, Tulsa, or even SMU today in the eyes of the MWC leadership.

Now it appears the WAC is also gambling that if BYU is taken by the Big 12-2, the WAC will be able to cherry-pick what is left of the MWC. It isn't a ridiculous theory, but how likely is it really?

The assumption is that without BYU, the schools that make up the MWC would look around and realize they are in no better shape than the WAC schools and bail on the Mtn network. That assumes that unlike the WAC schools' leadership, the MWC schools' leadership is not delusional.

How likely is that?

The MWC has been chasing BCS status for years. For most football fans, that already puts the MWC schools' presidents' sanity in question. 

Is it really logical to assume they will suddenly stop and give up, retreating back to the WAC? 

Or is it far, far more likely that the MWC will grab Fresno and perhaps even Nevada, really putting the WAC in a bind, and then continue to chase its goal, leaving the WAC to rebuild with more FCS upgrades?

The moratorium is good PR but a bad strategy

A moratorium on WAC expansion may be an understandable short-term strategy, but I would argue it is at best a short-term strategy. It is useful in that it gets the media to stop talking about "how far the WAC has fallen," but that is about it.

It does take the focus off the fact that if the WAC had pressed UNT for an immediate in or out vote, UNT might have again turned down the WAC. UNT stated they wanted to have their program go through an assessment by an independent consultant (who, as it turns out, used to work for C-USA). That was viewed as a process that might take a few months and delay any decision by UNT.

Conferences generally require notification of departure for new conferences by mid- summer.

The Sun Belt would require notification of UNT leaving by July 1. The WAC probably wanted an answer in a similar time frame. UNT was just not going to hit that deadline. UNT was just unwilling to work in the window the WAC hoped.

It seems likely UNT would want to put their best foot forward for possible C-USA membership. There is also probably some desire to showcase New Mean Green Stadium and the optimal turnout numbers that it is likely to bring in its first season in UNT's push to achieve their publically stated primary goal of earning Conference USA membership. The stadium will open for the 2011 season.  

As a UNT fan who follows realignment and UNT fairly closely, I could totally see UNT moving up from the Sun Belt to the WAC. The statements by UNT's interim president express what seem to be a sincere desire to talk to any and all other conferences.

But on the same token, that president was part of the leadership that formed C-USA. That may be the very reason he was selected as the interim president. UNT is going to go for C-USA membership first. 

The other WAC candidates are all FCS members. Currently there is a moratorium on FCS to FBS upgrades that will be in place until 2011. If that moratorium is not extended and the rules are not modified, it looks like those upgrades will take a minimum of two years beyond that point.

Basically, if UNT wasn't going to immediately agree to join as team No. 9 until after the 2011 football season, the WAC had little reason not to impose a face-saving moratorium on football expansion to end media speculation (and conference bashing) for the time being.

But it doesn't change the WAC's current reality.

The WAC needs more FBS schools. They need split-division scheduling to cut travel costs that threaten New Mexico State, San Jose State, and hobble the competitiveness of UH and La Tech. And they need TV markets.

None of that happens if Fresno and Hawaii don't grow a pair and assume leadership of the conference. The other schools look to them for direction, but both schools refuse to shape conference policy and lead the conference to a brighter future.

Think about the WAC as a business

What if FBS football conferences were Honolulu-based construction companies?

There would be six very strong firms (representing the BCS conferences) building major hotels, one solid company (the MWC), two struggling companies with some good investor potential (C-USA and the WAC), and two companies that survive from job to job doing renovations (the MAC and Sun Belt).

If the WAC were this struggling Honolulu construction company with good potential, they would effectively be approaching investors (potential expansion candidates) and then in the same sentence telling those investors "but our two main investors are thinking of liquidating their stock and buying into our main competitor (the MWC)". 

How does that allow for WAC expansion? How can one realistically expect the best possible candidates to put their somewhat stable athletic programs at risk and buy into the WAC?

If the WAC was a boat floating down the Mississippi, Fresno and Hawaii would be two rednecks in the back taking turns blowing holes in the boat with their shotguns.

Really, it needs to stop.

Fresno State's failure to lead

For the last few years the WAC has been hamstrung by the Big Three's (Boise State, Fresno State, and UH) refusal to even pay lip service to ruling out the MWC and committing to the WAC.

This article is mostly aimed at UH because frankly, at this point, Fresno State is the WAC school in the driver's seat as far as MWC inclusion goes. Because of that, I don't think you can expect true leadership from Fresno State. 

If any school from the WAC will be admitted, it will be Fresno, as they have the best combination of a strong football program, reasonable travel, and a good market. It is hard to imagine Fresno State taking a true leadership position in the WAC and at least paying lip service to denying interest in the MWC.

That said, I think the WAC could ask for Fresno State to at least try to take more of an on-the-field leadership position a la Boise State and play a more engineered schedule like Boise has done in the past instead of Fresno State's old "anyone, anytime" scheduling philosophy.

A change in philosophy along those lines, turning 8-4 records into 10-2 to 12-0 records, would improve the perception of Fresno State to the MWC by increasing their value in BCS automatic qualifier conference computations.

This would also help the WAC by creating the perception of a very strong upper tier in the conference.

With no condemnation implied, that, and not actively campaigning against expansion, is likely as much leadership as can the MWC can ask or expect from Fresno State today.

UH is another story.

Hawaii's failure to lead

As someone who grew up on the Big Island, I have been following the happenings in the WAC with bated breath. 

Independence Lemmings

I was greatly disappointed to see talented and respected local editorialists like the Star-Advertiser's Ferd Lewis talk about Hawaii leaving the WAC to go independent like that would be the obvious optimal path forward for the school.

He recently tried to push the idea of UH becoming an FBS independent even after UH AD Jim Donovan told him flatly, "It (independence) is not an option for me as the WAC stands now." Donovan did at least throw Lewis and the independence folks a bone by going on to say, "...But if dramatic changes came, we'd have to look at all of our options and see what is best for the state, the school and the program."

Lewis took that response as a cue to not so subtly push the argument that UH should leave the WAC for independent FBS football status and Big West membership in all other sports, perhaps taking the interpretation that "dramatic changes" in the WAC meant large-scale expansion.

I can't guarantee that isn't what Donovan meant, but based on what I have gleaned from years of following realignment, I'd argue Donovan probably meant the more innocuous interpretation of "if the WAC collapses, we might look at independence." ADs tend not to draw those kinds of lines in the sand.

The idea is that Hawaii would rejoin the Big West for all other sports, something that might not be a given either. The Big West is comprised of California public schools. California has a lot of budget issues.

When posed with this scenario in preparation for Lewis' article, Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell told Lewis the Big West has a moratorium on expansion, and he also added that the Big West hadn't added anyone since 2001-2002. He did go on to say, "Hawaii certainly does have a great history with the Big West with their women's programs and we have a great affinity for their program and people over the years," but it still seemed like a friendly "no thank you."

Adding travel to Hawaii is not something any conference wants to do and at budgets in the non-BCS AQ FBS level and below is something most schools in those conferences aren't certain they can bear.

Lewis did mention the idea of UH subsidizing travel for Big West schools. One gets the feeling that may have been discussed with Farrell off the record.  

UH does not have to do that in the WAC. Maybe that can get UH back into the Big West, but would higher TV payouts exceed those new costs to help the bottom line? It is hard to assume that is correct logic.

One cannot totally blame writers like Lewis or UH fans for embracing this idea. It is an idea that has been around for a while and has been embraced by key employees of the athletic department, like influential former football coach June Jones.

Jones recently visited the islands and took the opportunity to throw a little more gas on the independence fire.

"I've talked about independence for 10 years. There's a lot of interest in that TV slot, the last game. Hawaii has a unique slot, and FOX, ESPN, Comcast, a lot of people are looking for programming. I've thought being independent is the direction to go toward for a long time, with the rest of the sports in the Big West..."

As almost an afterthought Jones did casually end the quote with a "don't blame me if it blows up in your faces disclaimer": "...Of course you're taking a chance with scheduling. You just never know how it will work out, but it's worth really taking a good look at."

I know the Big West is a fairly competitive conference for some sports. It still looks a lot like selling out your other programs to go all in on a gamble that may not work to improve your football program.

I am not really surprised a football coach would strongly push that or that an AD would apparently be on the opposite side of that argument. 

UH has the most to lose if the WAC collapses

The real truth is that Hawaii has the most to lose of all the WAC schools if the WAC fails. The conference assures them they will have a certain number of home games against FBS opponents each year that they don't have to bribe anyone to land.

If the WAC goes away, barring UH going on a 25-1 or better run over the next two years and becoming another Boise State-level factor in the BCS AQ calculations for this BCS evaluation interval, Hawaii isn't going to get a MWC offer. 

There are reasons Hawaii was left behind when the gang of five left the WAC. Travel was expensive, and Hawaii owns a tiny DMA. Those factors are still in place.

A much more likely scenario if Hawaii was suddenly without the WAC is that Hawaii will have to pay ALL of their opponents to come to play Hawaii. UH and the state doesn't have the money for that.

The thought is that ESPN will make up that money by unloading fat cash on UH to land late night games. While in general the late night game argument is a strong potential argument for Hawaii, considering the potential ratings and the limited schedule, big payouts seem unlikely.

It seems a very risky move.

Additionally, just talking about it probably destabilizes the WAC a bit more. One has to think the comments from pie in the sky Hawaii fans in response to this article have to piss off fans and employees of their conference mates.

(Again, to be fair to the people at UH, AD Donovan obviously tried to shut the door on this argument, but Lewis wrote the article anyway, apparently trying to gin up support for this possibly reckless maneuver. That said, this thought clearly has advocates among current and past employees of the UH athletic department. Former coach June Jones was—and is—an advocate of this approach, and it seems likely others in the athletic department probably have steered Lewis in this direction over the years.)

UH and its fans need to be advocating the path that allows the WAC to climb out of its slow erosion. Independence should be a last resort, as it will always have the current viability. Building up the WAC means adding markets and building conference loyalty through various means.

The WAC without Boise is in a situation they haven't been in for years. Logically, all mathematical chance of them being in the hunt for a BCS slot is gone.

That isn't a sad thing. That gives the WAC the freedom to chase big markets even if that means adding FCS schools without fear of a loss of short-term stature. The MWC doesn't have the freedom to do that.

The lessons of UH's past failures to lead

UH needs to realize they are the University of Texas of this conference.

Like UT and the Big 12, UH has the ability to make this conference. But that alone is not enough; UH also needs to realize they have been breaking the WAC for almost a decade.

UH didn't swear its allegiance to the WAC and the 2003 "Benson Plan," and as such, members drifted from the WAC to CUSA rather than from CUSA to the WAC.

Karl Benson was working on a deal to pull Houston, Tulane, and possibly TCU from CUSA to form a 12-member, two-division WAC. It would have had nice markets and cost-saving split-division travel.

His efforts required the WAC to show solidarity to impress the potential candidates.

UH was unwilling to write off their hopes of MWC membership and as such would not commit to the WAC. More to the point, they wouldn't even pay lip service to committing to the WAC. With UH leading the way, SMU and Nevada also voted against committing to the WAC.

There was a perception that if UH had gotten on board, Benson would have been able to land all 10 votes. If that occurred, the WAC had a good shot of landing Houston and Tulane to get to a split-division 12-team WAC.

The vote failed, sending the message that the WAC was not stable, thwarting the desires of the WAC's central privates and Houston and Tulane to be part of a central division of the WAC.

Shortly thereafter, SMU, Tulsa, and Rice moved to CUSA. A little after that, UTEP left for CUSA too. Now Benson's proposed central division is the CUSA West.

Since then Benson has not been able to secure commitments to the conference as UH, Fresno, and Boise have all lusted for MWC inclusion.

It all started because UH refused to lead.

UH needs to get their house in order

Institutionally, UH needs to get rid of the termites in it's house.

The powers that be at UH need to stress to all members of the athletic department the importance of vocalizing support for the WAC on and off the record.  Talking down the WAC only minimizes local support for continuing WAC membership and creates media fodder for WAC detractors.

It reduces the WAC's chances of success.

UH only has a few options.  With the loss of Boise, UH is on to Plan B - maximize the WAC.  Plan C is probably go independent for football and agree to pay for opponents' travel to join the Big West.  If Plan C fails and there is a Plan D, that plan may be dropping football.

To jump from Plan A to plan C knowing that it would likely kill the WAC is just crazy.

Everyone in UH's athletic department needs to be strong WAC advocates on or off the record. 

And the AD needs to politely ask June Jones to shut his trap on the subject. 

If athletic department employees can't bring themselves to do it for the betterment of the WAC, the University. and the state, one would have to think they could do it to save their jobs and their co-workers' jobs.  Afterall if they move to plan C and it fails, the athletic department will have to contract.  Athletic department employees may be forced to move out of state to continue their careers.

It is time to grow up and lead

Is the WAC a great conference? No.

Is it a shadow of its former self? Yes.

But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Right now the WAC has next to no native TV markets of note. To generate TV revenue, the WAC is totally reliant on ESPN turning one of their schools into a national curiosity like ESPN did with Boise State.

Adding big TV markets could change that equation. The lead the MWC has over the WAC in TV revenue generation is not that substantial. New TV revenue could fuel league-wide competitiveness.

The MWC is very much limited by who they can rob from the WAC and still improve their BCS AQ math, so the WAC has a lot of leeway here. 

The WAC could target schools like Sacramento State or UNT that offer good TV potential but might in the short term max out as a seven- or eight-win team in the WAC. The WAC could rest comfortably knowing the MWC will be very limited with what actions they can take in response to those kinds of moves.

But in order for that to occur, the leaders in the WAC have to actually lead for once.

They have to show some solidarity. They have to bless expansion to add TV markets and reduce travel costs by creating divisional play, even if that means confirming a short-term loss of stature. 

The WAC may not be able to afford the loss of a UH or Fresno State, but at eight members, they also cannot afford the loss of a New Mexico State or San Jose State to a potential downgrade over travel and attendance reasons.

For once, the leaders of the WAC have to have Karl Benson's back and not just use it as a place to store their knives.


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