A Tale of Two Conferences

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(First published May 7, 2012)

Fifty years ago, two conferences emerged on the Division I college football scene. One’s tumultuous birth led to the demise of two other conferences, leaving former partners in the lurch as the landscape shuffled. The other rippled far less, a conference chartered over a decade previously merely moving into a new sports realm with its core membership of seven schools.

One conference blazed brightly, a series of its teams succeeding wildly beyond expectation to keep the league relevant on the national scene. Its teams have won national championships both shared and outright, played in major bowl games, and challenged the established hierarchy of the sport year after year to force its way into the discussion. The other mainly remained a regional sensation, passionate local rivalries punctuated with the occasional upset of a powerhouse program but rarely extending beyond the geographic footprint of its membership. Its teams

Five decades later, one of these two conferences is on its deathbed, staring at a future with but two remaining members. The other conference thrives as the second-largest conference currently operating in college football. It could ultimately prove a lesson in the dangers of growth and contraction in the name of chasing greatness, and an endorsement for stability and the sensibility of staying within a group’s collective means…

 

Over the past few years, the Western Athletic Conference has been a league under siege. Back in the early sixties, it was born from the merger of the strongest six teams from two dying conferences, with Arizona’s growing pair of universities leaving behind the Hardin-Simmonses and West Texas A&Ms of the Border Conference and half the Skyline Eight leaving behind jilted partners in the wake of their retreat. Since the momentous day in July 1962 when the WAC was officially chartered by Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the league has existed in a vacuous state where it has alternately lived as the hunted mid-major and the hunter of weakened competition.

After a half-century of yielding national-title contenders and BCS Busters and Heisman hopefuls, the WAC is being strip-mined and auctioned off to any conference that will take its leftovers...

After a half-century of yielding national-title contenders and BCS Busters and Heisman hopefuls, the WAC is being strip-mined and auctioned off to any conference that will take its leftovers…

After Frank Kush vaulted the Sun Devils to prominence in the 1970s, Arizona’s two exponentially-expanding universities left behind a 15-year-old conference that they had both already outgrown. LaVell Edwards brought BYU up from mediocrity to fill that void, utilizing an aerial attack in Provo that catapulted the school to a level of national prominence and respect that culminated in the 1984 national title and Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy.

Heading into the last decade of the 20th century, the WAC regularly placed two or three teams in the Top 25 polls every season. Edwards by that point was the dean of the conference’s coaches, with strong minds challenging him annually. At various times Fisher DeBerry at Air Force, Paul Roach and Joe Tiller at Wyoming, Sonny Lubick at Colorado State, Dennis Franchione at New Mexico and Bob Wagner at Hawaii drew national attention for their exploits at schools usually far away from the mainstream radar. Later, it would be guys like Pat Hill at Fresno State, June Jones at Hawaii, Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen at Boise State and Chris Ault at Nevada who have captivated national audiences with the teams they have directed.

But those latter-day coaches would lead in a landscape where the WAC was undervalued. Stretching beyond its traditional footprint in the 1990s, the conference went beyond using the Big West as its feeder league for the promotion of talent to higher levels of competition to grow to poaching the ugly ducklings left behind by the collapse of the Southwest Conference and the formation of the Big XII Conference. In 1996, the WAC became the first conference to balloon to superconference size, sixteen teams lining up for three seasons that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the league.

At one point the WAC served as a feeder system, promoting teams from I-AA and from lower-profile I-A conferences and then allowing them to blossom into programs too attractive to be passed up by the big-time conferences. Seven of its 26 former members currently or will soon play in one of the soon-to-be-former-BCS leagues. But, with none of the original 1962 charter founders remaining in the WAC — and, for that matter, just one of the teams that even comprised the alliance in its 16-team incarnation from 1996-98 — the spirit has been irretrievably lost from the once-proud mid-major that roared.

Instead it now exists in the very league that has become the new hunter of the mid-major ranks. Following the 1998 season, the WAC was halved from 16 to eight when all of the original teams pre-expansion deserted the teams they drew into their ranks and reconstituted into the Mountain West Conference. By 2013 that conference — which has used the WAC to continue bolstering its ranks despite the loss of Utah, BYU, TCU, Boise State and San Diego State to power conferences — will be the only remaining conference representing the conglomerated collegiate programs of the Rocky Mountains.

The Mountain West, since snagging the original eight defectors from the WAC, has poached its older yet weaker conference of any and all substantive assets over the ensuing decade. The move to grab TCU — technically a Conference USA school at the time, but just a quadrennial removed from its short-lived period as a WAC member — started the chain. Then, when Utah left to join the Pac-12 and BYU left for holy-roller independence, they reached out to poach the WAC’s preeminent member, Boise State, just a decade after the Broncos’ move to the WAC had fueled its rise from backwater I-A neophyte to nationally-known sensation. A year later, WAC rivals Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii made the decision to move to the MWC for the 2012 season.

Then this offseason’s cards tumbled to the table, and we found out the WAC had been trumped once again. The Mountain West revealed that San Jose State and Utah State would leave the WAC for a fresh lease on life in the new Rocky Mountain powerhouse. Defending WAC champion joined I-A newcomer UT-San Antonio in announcing a move to C-USA. And the Sun Belt — whose commissioner, Karl Benson, was the same man who guided the WAC through its zenith and to its nadir from 1994 to 2012 — is snatching the WAC’s other I-A neophyte, Texas State, to help replace the loss of FIU and North Texas to C-USA.

How did we get here? Conferences come and go… since the WAC’s formation, college football has seen the de-emphasis of football at the traditional Ivy League powerhouses; the disbandment of the SWC, whose Texas-sized programs had payrolls to match;  the creation, rise, fall and subsequent bloat of the Big East; the fade into obsolescence of the Southern and Missouri Valley Conferences and folding of their relevant teams into the fabric of the other conferences. No conference is guaranteed survival, nor can any program rest comfortably in the knowledge that its home is forever secure…

 

Yet the other conference who entered the football landscape in that 1962 season seems as strong and secure in its position as ever. The Mid-American Conference had been formed after World War II between the city schools of the Midwest. By the time the league made the decision, 16 years after its formation, to emphasize football among its sponsored sports, it consisted of seven like-minded and geographically linked public universities across the stretch of land from Michigan through Ohio into West Virginia. After Marshall was expelled for NCAA violations in 1969, the league became even more tightly compacted within reasonable territorial range.

Over the decades the league would expand several times. In 1971, the league went from six to eight schools, adding Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan to give Western Michigan a couple of counterparts to balance the five Ohio schools. Ball State (1973) and Northern Illinois (1975) expanded the conference in a southwesterly direction into Indiana and Illinois, diversifying its draw without stretching travel budgets to a breaking point.

The MAC started working to acquire the requisite twelve members for a championship game in the 1990s — a move that incidentally was started in 1992 when then-commissioner Karl Benson (yes, that very same Benson who led the WAC and now guides the Sun Belt) welcomed Akron into the fold in the conference’s first expansion in 17 years. Five years later, the return of Northern Illinois (who had left the conference in 1986) and Marshall gave the league enough teams to host its first championship game.

Marshall’s Thundering Herd would dominate the championship game’s early incarnation, winning the first six consecutive championships. Five victories in the campus-site championship format came at home, with four victories over Toledo (including their only road game in 2001) and the other two against Western Michigan.

The addition of Buffalo and UCF (as a football-only member) grew the league’s numbers to twelve. Rather than grabbing quickly for any commodity on the market, the league sought out growth organically. At 14 members, the conference could weather the loss of UCF and Marshall to Conference USA in 2005 without the loss of their championship game. And after accepting Temple into the fold in 2007 following the Owls’ exile from the Big East, the league survived healthy as ever despite the unbalanced schedule of 13 schools.

While other conferences have had to deal with defections and have scrambled to recover numbers by perpetuating the game of musical chairs, the MAC has largely managed to survive every storm that has come its way. Losing Marshall — who in 1999 missed the league’s best chance to play in a BCS bowl when the Herd finished 13-0 with a Motor City Bowl win over #25 BYU — was painful, but it was not overly detrimental to the league’s long-term survival. Miami’s 12-1 season in 2003, the first team to break Marshall’s streak of conference titles prior to the Herd’s departure, was also not enough to gain admittance to a big-time bowl matchup. The RedHawks, led by senior quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, would have to settle for the GMAC Bowl and a 49-28 win over C-USA’s Louisville.

Buffalo’s shock defeat of Ball State in the 2008 MAC Championship Game would cost the league its last best chance at a lucrative BCS slot. While the WAC and Mountain West bolstered their credentials on the exploits of Utah and TCU and Boise State and Hawaii, the teams of the Mid-American Conference were overlooked and undervalued all the while…

 

So why is it the WAC and not the MAC which is dying? Why does a conference that boasts BCS appearances and national championships and Heisman winners get cannibalized while a conference that couldn’t parlay perfection into a shot at greatness survives stronger than ever?

Three problems come immediately to mind. The first is the sheer matter of geography. Across the broad expanses of the western United States, in some of the least populous states in the country, there are no ways to get around the increased costs of traveling to and from games every weekend. It is one thing for a blueblood school like a Notre Dame to make a barnstorming cross-country tour every season; teams like New Mexico and Colorado State and UNLV understandably have a harder time traversing thousands of miles round trip every time they need to play another road game on the schedule. As those trips accumulate, money spews out of the program’s coffers faster than it can be accumulated…

Which leads to the second major problem that separates these two conferences — the ability to attract revenue. The downfall of the WAC in its mid-90s superconference incarnation was the inability to earn enough money to fill everyone’s accounts enough to pay for the enterprise. That was with all of its most marketable commodities intact, all of the schools that would eventually defect to start the Mountain West like BYU and Utah along with programs like TCU and Fresno State. As universities depart for greener pastures, the self-fulfilling death knell keeps snowballing into an avalanche that sweeps away fifty years of history-building.

Finally, the biggest problem is a concept that a conference has a Manifest Destiny of some sort. When the WAC spanned four time zones in its 16-team format, it stretched the idea of regionally-based conference affiliations beyond their logical extreme. Conversely, with every move the MAC has made to expand, it has fallen for the most part within sensible geographic boundaries. Falling within the Eastern and Central time zones, there is less disruption both to fans and for the actual student-athletes who… you know, have to actually play these games we discuss so much.

The MAC knows it will never be the Big Ten. It never dreamed of outpacing the Ohio States and Michigans within its regional footprint; it knew from the outset that it was a war it was destined to lose every single time, no matter how many individual upsets its member teams might pull off on the field of competition. The problem for the WAC was that, having developed in an era when the Pac-12 was still a vacuous five-team AAWU after scandal had disbanded the Pacific Coast Conference, it always had visions of becoming the preeminent western conference in college football.

But as its teams grew, they outgrew the competition around them and sought out tougher teams with which to affiliate. The Arizona schools set a precedent fifteen years after the WAC’s formation that would play out time and time again throughout the league’s half-century of relevance and the diminishing returns of a Sisyphean strive for greatness.

The departure of Utah State — a team that, in 1962, felt jilted enough by its exclusion from the WAC’s charter membership that Utah legislators tried to pass a law forcing the Aggies’ inclusion — sets things fully in perspective. When a school that was once too small to justify inclusion in a conference finds itself now too relevant to justify remaining in the conference, the wistful peals of the funeral bell have sounded a final ring across the land. Contrasted with the conference that grew on the opposite country along the same timeline, it presents a cautionary tale that bears mentioning as other leagues large and small look to grow their way to prominence themselves.