Saturday, July 27, 2013

RIP College Conferences, Part I: WAC Football


July 1, in essence, began the New Year for college athletics.  It’s sort of like how the United States has a fiscal year that never starts on January 1.  I don’t get the reasoning the country gets to name its own New Year in order to balance its ledger.  By contrast, I understand why a new year began for college sports four weeks ago: Summer is their slow period, with no sport in the middle of its season, so no bleep, it’s easiest to do it when the only coeds on campus that could whip up some school spirit would be international students from China and India, none of whom would go to a sporting event anyway.

The “new year” meant that, once again, a bevy – no, a fusillade – of universities switched conferences.  Damn you, Jim Delaney, for propagating yet another season of broken rivalries and confusing league-jumping, actions done in order to appease the trio of sources of college athletics sustenance: money, TV ratings, and exposure.  All told, 50 schools will be in new conferences for the 2013-14 academic year, which means that 115 teams in at least one college sport have switched leagues since Delaney, the imperious commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, warned everyone that he had the urge to merge with another school that would increase inventory and, consequently, payouts for each member of his Big Ten Network.  He found a willing traitor in Nebraska just in time for the 2011-12 season.

The volume of realignment in college sports has finally gotten to a point where it affects conferences, and that is what I hope to commemorate and/or eulogize in a small series of columns before the college sports season begins in late August.  Leagues are radically changing, if not dying, because teams decided they didn’t want to be in their old places.  And even though the Western Athletic Conference, or WAC, is still standing, they have a unique story to tell.  Because if you want to think about conference realignment on a macro scale, the WAC started it.

In a bit of karma, six schools left two conferences, the Border and the Skyline, both of which died the year the WAC was born in 1962.  It grew to eight with the additions of Colorado St. and UTEP in 1967.  The bellwether school at the time was Arizona St., which gave the conference credibility when its baseball program won the College World Series in 1965, ’67 and ’69.

However, the early days of the WAC turned out to be the most stable; in 1978, both the Sun Devils and Arizona quit to grow the Pac-8 into the Pac-10.  In retaliation, San Diego St. joined that same year, Hawaii came over a year later, and Air Force made the league nine strong in 1980.

Then, in 1996, college sports was rocked by a rogue wave of realignment – not to the extent that we’ve seen in recent years, but the desperation of some universities and the opportunism from some conferences are eerily similar.  That year marked the death of the fabled Southwest Conference and the continuing eradication of football teams remaining independent.  Meanwhile, as Rivals.com writer Tom Dienhart explained in a great story about the WAC almost two years ago, the College Football Association, the broadcasting arm for the big schools, was dissolving because conferences were negotiating their own television deals.  Plus, the NCAA had the 12-team requirement before a conference could have a championship game, a bylaw enacted I don’t know when.

So, with these cross winds blowing through the college football landscape, the Commissioner of the WAC at the time, Karl Benson, devised a crazy, ambitious plan: The conference would absorb six teams to go with the ten they already had (the WAC annexed Fresno St. in 1992) and create a 16-team superconference.  Geez, where have I heard the term superconference before?

Benson and WAC athletic directors fulfilled its Manifest Destiny, picking up Rice, SMU and TCU after they were marooned from the SWC; ex-Big West members UNLV and San Jose St.; and Tulsa from the Missouri Valley Conference.  That meant they could start up that lucrative conference championship game with four schools to spare.  But the first question for the megaconference after it was formed signaled the first of many problems that ultimately doomed the league: How do you create divisions in order to have a championship game?  Turns out that question was not answered to most of the teams’ – no, probably all of the teams’ – satisfaction, and like seeing your bride making out with your groomsman’s brother at the wedding reception, Benson and other WAC officials probably knew, or at least should have known, this marriage was doomed from the start.

Benson noted in Dienhart’s piece that the 16 schools did not elegantly cleave into North and South or East and West divisions.  And just telling two schools from the old WAC they are going to be thrown in with the six new additions could break up rivalries; could it mean the end, for example, of Wyoming and BYU playing annually, or Colorado St. and UTEP?

So Benson tried something unique: Essentially there would not be “divisions” within the WAC but “pods,” four groups of four teams that would always be together because of geographic proximity.  The four colleges furthest west (Hawaii, San Diego St., Fresno St., San Jose St.) would always anchor the Pacific Division; the four furthest east (Rice, Tulsa, SMU and TCU) would permanently comprise part of the Mountain Division, the other two pods (UNLV, Colorado St., Wyoming and Air Force in one, Utah, BYU, New Mexico and UTEP in the other) would switch divisions every two years.

The Frankenstein that was the 16-team WAC lasted three years.  The conference started off with great success in its first year when BYU won the title game, finished sixth in the final Associated Press poll of the ’96 season and was selected for the Cotton Bowl, where it defeated Kansas St. on New Year’s Day.  However, teams from the old WAC weren’t satisfied with taking two years off from playing some rival schools.  Benson said that in the spring of 1998, after the third season of Pacific and Mountain Divisions, Utah and BYU demanded an end to the pod system and the establishment of East and West divisions.  UNLV and Air Force then said they preferred pods.  And Benson failed to placate either side.

So, at Denver International Airport (clandestine college realignment meetings always seem to take place at airport terminals, don’t they?), a plan to break away from the WAC was formed and executed.  The four schools Benson said brought the main issue of divisions to a head – Utah, BYU, UNLV and Air Force – all left to form a new conference, the Mountain West, beginning in the 1999 season.  Wyoming, Colorado St., New Mexico and San Diego St. left as well, thereby cutting a 16-team league down to eight.  Geez, where have I seen the halving of a super-conference before?  And with all four remaining charter members deciding this situation was no longer tenable, the Western Athletic Conference had lost its soul.  Geez, where have I read about a conference losing its soul before?

Regular divisional rotations and the end of traditional rivalries weren’t the only issues that defeated the WAC.  You had teams that stretched as far west as Honolulu (Hawaii) and as far east as Houston (Rice).  That’s 3,900 miles and five time zones to haul an entire football team, with accoutrements, for a Saturday afternoon.  Benson tried to sell sports fans on the geographic breadth of the WAC, but that reach was perceived more as a burden than a strength.  Plus, member schools were too small to bring in enough viewers and money that could coax the 16 to stay.  Many of these colleges were in the same TV market as bigger, BcS schools and fought a losing battle to win eyeballs and raise their profiles.  Utah athletic director Chris Hill noted in the article that San Jose St. was dwarfed by Stanford and Cal in the Bay Area, and the Texas schools always had to fall in line behind Texas and Texas A&M.  So although Benson managed to wrangle a contract from ESPN, it was not the bonanza that would have enticed schools to stick with the WAC, let alone one that would change the face of college football.

However, conference expansion has been done much more successfully the past two years.  The Big Ten has gone from 11 schools after the 2010-11 season to 14 next year.  The Pac-10 is now the Pac-12.  The SEC and ACC have grown to 14 teams (the ACC goes up to 15 for basketball season; Notre Dame football, however, remains gloriously independent).  And the prediction/threat of 16-team super-conferences – is the only reason 16 has become the “magical” number for a super-conference is because it’s divisible by two four times? – continues to loom even after the big leagues impose “grant of rights” poison pills to force schools making goo-goo eyes at other conferences to stay faithful.

So how in the hell did BcS conferences pull off what Benson could not pull off with the WAC?  The Western Athletic Conference broke up mainly due to three things:

1.       How to create divisions in order to field a conference championship game that would satisfy all parties.  None of the big conferences had to deal with 16 schools so spread out throughout the country.  On a map of the United States the scatter plot of WAC behemoth looked like someone grabbed 16 darts and threw them on the western side of the country while closing his eyes.  That’s not to say the lines of demarcation in the BcS conferences are clear; Missouri is in the northwest part of the SEC footprint but is in the SEC East, and, uh, Legends and Leaders?  But the B1G is going to West and East Divisions once Maryland and Rutgers join in 2014.

2.       The cost of travel.  Take a look at the historic data on the price of gas.  On September 1996, the month of the first WAC games under this set-up, gas was $1.25 a gallon.  On November 1998, the last month of regular season WAC games, it actually went down to $1.04.  This isn’t adjusted for inflation, but still, man, I would murder kittens so I could pay that little for gas.  I will allow that some WAC schools still worried that the new super-conference would jack up travel costs.  Remember that the expanded league not only affected member schools’ football teams but also their basketball, soccer, baseball and track teams.  Nevertheless, expenses to fly a football team, coaching staff, support staff, band and cheerleaders must be exponentially more expensive now than it was in the nineties.  West Virginia, for example, saw its travel costs jump by $2 million in its first season in the Big 12 last year, according to SportsBusiness Daily.  Maryland will get between $20 and $30 million to cover travel expenses once they start play in the Big Ten.

3.       The loss of rivalries.  Seems as if BcS conferences don’t give a rat’s ass anymore.  Minnesota played Iowa for Floyd of Rosedale on the last week of regular season play for 28 straight years … until Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney said that Iowa’s “natural rivalry” was in fact newcomer Nebraska, and now the Gophers don’t have a natural rival to play against.  But the concern of the loss of longstanding rivalries don’t manifest from intra-conference play these days, like it did with the WAC.  It is instead seen with the abrupt end of long-standing rivalries, in football and basketball, because a team in the blood feud left for another conference – Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri, Duke-Maryland … I should make a list.  Rivalry loss now seems like a quaint reason the WAC broke up.

So with the possible exception of the difficulty of creating geographic divisions, the problems that led to the breakup of the WAC are still problems BcS conferences face today.  But they’re still doing it.  Why?  Of course you know the answer: money.  Colleges can end decades-long rivalries and allegiances, tolerate a doubling of their travel costs and put their arms around teams they’ve never played before and swear that, deep down, they always knew they were a better fit for their new conference if it means a windfall for their athletic program.  Benson could not bring the WAC a revenue boost that appeased all its members.  Maybe he never would have been able to deliver that because none of the 16 programs had the national cachet of an Alabama, Oklahoma or USC.  So, eight of those teams formed the Mountain West as a way to control expenses and, well, to assert a sense of control.

Of course, the MWC hasn’t stood pat, either.  The eight universities that broke away were the stronger ones, and after six years of proving their bona fides on the gridiron they went back and took TCU from the conference that birthed them.  In fact, all 12 current football members were formerly with the WAC.  With the help of BcS-busting seasons from TCU and Boise St., the conference that was formed 15 years ago is now considered to be the best of the non-BcS leagues.

Meanwhile, during the flurry of college realignment the past few years, the “free market” decided that the WAC would be the lowest conference in top-flight college football.  Its universities were being poached left and right – by the Mountain West, Conference USA and even, egads, the Sun Belt.  In a bid for survival they in turn poached from the next smallest guy, in this case Division I-AA schools that wanted to move up to Division I-A – Texas St. and Texas-San Antonio, for example.  But they still couldn’t stanch the bleeding; five of the seven teams in the WAC for the 2012 football season, Texas St. and Texas-San Antonio among them, had already arranged to join other conferences before the season even began.  The league would go into the 2013 season with only New Mexico St. and Idaho.  Instead of trying to fish for other schools once again, the league announced in August that the 2012 football season would be its 51st and last.  The Sun Belt took pity and agreed to take the Aggies and Vandals in.

The conference is still around, fielding eight men’s and ten women’s sports.  The oldest member, in any sport, is Northern Arizona, whose women’s swim team joined the WAC way back in 2004.  Idaho and New Mexico St. are considered full members now that the league has dropped football, but six of the other seven full members joined July 1.  One of those is the first for-profit school in Division I, Grand Canyon University, which is facing a challenge to its athletic standing by Pac-12 schools.  Who’s next, WAC, the University of Phoenix?

I’m being harsh.  Allowing a for-profit school to compete in big-money college athletics is a mistake, but what else could the WAC do in order to survive?  A more important point is the legacy of Karl Benson.  In the past I thought Benson was a failure for not being able to close the pen before all the cattle escaped.  But I realize now that he was, in fact, a trailblazer.  He knew where the future of college sports was headed.  And he had the vision and/or audacity to create a conference covering a huge chunk of the nation just as it was deepening its appetite for college football.  Delaney, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, SEC Commish Mike Slive and ACC bigwig John Swofford may have done a better job at conference realignment and expansion, but none of them can say they were the first.  Benson can.

He has moved on; like many schools, he too has jumped conferences, leaving the WAC to become commissioner of the Sun Belt March 2012.  His successor, Jeff Hurd, now oversees a league that includes luminous colleges such as Utah Valley St., Seattle, and Houston Baptist.  No school in the WAC, full or partial, was with the conference before the turn of the millennium. 

The Western Athletic Conference still has a future.  It may be bright or it may be uncertain, but it has accepted its role as one of the stepping stones between top-flight college sports and the NCAA’s lower divisions.  Like an actor’s first agent or the talent scout that found a superstar singer performing at the local mall, the WAC seems destined to be a way station for athletic programs with big-time aspirations.  It will fill that expectation with something that could be described as dignity.  Do not doubt, however, that its link to its origins is severed forever, and it doesn’t seem right that greed managed to destroy over half a century of a proud league’s history.

When the corrective of college realignment is told, it shall be noted that Western Athletic Conference football was killed by a phenomenon it created.  Nevertheless, if the writer of that history cares about the whole truth, WAC football will also be regarded as an unfortunate and very regrettable casualty.

Posted by WilliamSou at 11:07 PM

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