Thursday, June 3, 1999

Conference of confusion

Hawaii and the remaining
7 members of the Western Athletic
Conference face an uphill battle

Hawaii too far for tournaments
Financial, travel issues in Mountain West
Part 2: UH athletic options

By Paul Arnett


One year ago last week, eight schools announced plans to leave the Western Athletic Conference, citing the lack of "natural affinity" among the 16 conference member teams, a breakdown in traditional rivalries, hefty travel expenses and the "inability of the present conference to achieve greater national recognition and TV revenues."

That defection takes effect at the end of this month, leaving the University of Hawaii and seven other schools adrift in the new WAC, still struggling with those issues.

Of the remaining schools, only Texas Christian and Tulsa made money -- $3.4 million -- for the expanded conference in the two revenue-producing sports, football and men's basketball.

By comparison, six of the eight schools leaving to form the Mountain West Conference contributed $16.1 million during the three years the 16-team conference existed -- $8.6 million in men's basketball and $7.5 million in football.

And while the new Mountain West Conference is already flourishing with a Holiday Bowl site for its football champion and a seven-year, $47 million television deal with ESPN to broadcast football and men's basketball, the remaining WAC members are still searching for answers.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson has spent the better part of the year trying to convince Fox Sports that his league has something to offer.

But that's a difficult sale: Five of the eight conference teams have not managed a winning record in football since 1993, and TCU and Tulsa are the only remaining WAC schools to have taken part in postseason football and NCAA men's basketball since the league expansion took effect in 1996.

"We've been stressing to our athletic directors the importance of not only putting a winning product on the field in football and men's basketball, but an entertaining one as well," Benson said.

"Hawaii has a lot going for it as a travel destination and the exemption status in football that allows teams going to Hawaii to play a 12th game. But Hawaii also has to be more competitive in the two major sports, as all our members need to be."


That is not to say that Hawaii is not a viable league member. Its contributions in baseball and women's volleyball, for example, can't be ignored.

But overshadowing everything is the football team finishing 5-31 the last three seasons and the men's basketball team not gaining a bid to the NCAA tournament during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 campaigns, despite back-to-back 20-win seasons.

Both basketball teams went to the National Invitational Tournament, but most of the money generated from that postseason event goes to the tournament organizers.

"There are a lot of schools that contributed money in different sports, but they're only revenue producers on a local level, not conferencewide," said Jeff Hurd, WAC associate commissioner.

The WAC presidents meet next week in California to not only discuss financial concerns, but whether to expand by as many as two teams or wait one season to see how the current eight-team marriage plays out.

Benson strongly believes that expansion needs to take place, and soon, to keep a presence in such states as Nevada, Utah and New Mexico.

He thinks the best way to balance the league is to have two six-team divisions. Some schools being considered for expansion are Boise State, Nevada-Reno, Utah State and New Mexico State.

In this formula, New Mexico State would join Texas-El Paso, TCU, SMU, Tulsa and Rice to form the East Division. The West Division would have Hawaii, Fresno State, San Jose State, Boise State, Nevada-Reno and Utah State.

But to hear UH President Kenneth Mortimer tell it, Benson's plan won't come to fruition.

"To expand beyond eight teams is iffy right now," he said. "But I would expect there will be serious conversation about another member or two, but not another four or five teams."

Mortimer headed the WAC council when the decision to expand to 16 teams from 10 was approved in 1994. In retrospect, Mortimer conceded that he isn't sure expansion was the way to go.

"When we did it there were some people who felt intensely against it," Mortimer said. "I made a self-guess to vote for it. At the time, the vote was 5-4. New Mexico wasn't in the room, so I voted in favor of going to 16."

Now, Mortimer said, "The issue that I'm concerned about is the stability of the WAC. I want some assurances that we're going to move on and begin marketing ourselves with the institutions we're going to compete against. I want to put all this stuff behind us.

"I'm willing to make some commitment to the University of Hawaii as what we're going to do over the next five years," he said. "All of this ambiguity, all of this up in the air has to be put behind us. Let us stop looking at what was, and let's start concentrating on what is and what can be."

What Hawaii's role will be in the trimmed-down WAC remains to be seen. Some of the league's presidents and athletic directors still view Hawaii as a liability. They question the imposing distance faced by teams from Texas and Oklahoma, and the travel costs that go with it.

"We have some challenges from a geographical standpoint as well as a revenue standpoint," UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida said. "But the shock of the breakup of the WAC is over.

"There is commitment being that the institutions in our conference are looking at least trying to work things through. But the challenges for our program are being more competitive on the field and travel costs."

That's not to say everyone sees Hawaii as cost prohibitive. The president of UTEP, for example, likes Hawaii's presence in the league.

"I think the wide range of schools in our conference has an appeal for our student-athletes," Diana Natalicio said. "Dollars and cents are always important. But the opportunity to see interesting places, and studying the historical and cultural aspects of a place like Honolulu, are beneficial to our young athletes."

Benson said he believes the hiring of June Jones as Hawaii's football coach will prove the right move as the Rainbows try to turn around a troublesome trend. He also believes the nonconference competition that Hawaii can attract in football and basketball helps the league's overall status.

But ultimately, it comes down to winning and losing. If Hawaii is to be a viable member in any league, it must produce in the major sports.

"These are very competitive times we're facing," Benson said. "The landscape is constantly changing and we have to be ready for all the possibilities.

"Everything runs in cycles. Hawaii has proved itself to be a viable member of our league since it joined 20 years ago. But it still comes down to what have you done for me lately?"

Paradise too far away
for tournaments

By Paul Arnett


Hawaii tried to cash in on the lure of paradise, cited by some conference members as a big plus, to attract conference tournaments in basketball and baseball, but to no avail. Despite competitive bids, Western Athletic Conference athletic directors chose to go elsewhere.

Fresno State hosted the baseball tournament with a bid of $40,000. Hawaii's was reportedly twice that. At the recent meetings in San Diego, Hawaii offered a package that bordered on $1 million to host the men's and women's postseason basketball tournaments, but didn't make it to the final three of the six teams that submitted bids.

"I think people still see Hawaii as a tough place to get to and out of," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "A lot of the teams left in the league don't know what it's like to make that 4,000-mile trip across the Pacific.

"I thought Hawaii's bids to host postseason events in our league have been competitive. But the distance and the time change from the schools in Texas and Oklahoma are challenges Hawaii has to keep trying to overcome."

And they will, UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida said.

"We were disappointed, but it won't stop us from bidding in the future," he said. "Travel and time change are two difficult obstacles we have to try to overcome."

Financial, travel
issues keep Hawaii out of
Mountain West picture

By Paul Arnett


Not producing big bucks for the two major money-making sports, coupled with the expense for teams having to travel to the islands, were reasons Hawaii wasn't seriously considered by the eight schools that left to form the Mountain West Conference.

"The breakaway was led by Colorado State and Air Force," UH President Kenneth Mortimer said. "The other three schools in the room were Wyoming, Utah and BYU. They then invited New Mexico and gave them 48 hours to make a decision.

"Then comes UNLV, which is the championship city, and then they invited San Diego State, which is the Holiday Bowl city. You can begin to see how all that fits together.

"The only unnatural connection was splitting up UTEP's and New Mexico's rivalry.

"I am told New Mexico was invited and were told to keep their mouths shut. If they didn't decide by Monday, then they would invite Fresno. We were never a part of it."

Shortly after the announced split last summer, Hawaii athletic department officials were hopeful they could be added to the list of schools abandoning ship. Even Gov. Ben Cayetano believed the Rainbows would be better served in the new league. But Mortimer came home from the conference meetings last June convinced that UH was on the right side of the fence.

"When they got into this debate later on of whether to go to nine or 10 teams by inviting Fresno State and Hawaii, I don't know exactly what I would have done had they actually invited us in," Mortimer said.

Travel subsidies for the men's and women's program were a major issue. In the end, the Mountain West presidents determined Hawaii was too costly a commodity that didn't produce enough financial gains in return.

"There were those of us who wanted Hawaii to be in the league," San Diego State athletic director Rick Bay said. "The opportunity to play a 12th game in football and the exemptions in other sports were attractive. But travel was a stumbling block for a majority of the schools."

WAC teams on par with
Mountain West

Paul Arnett, Star-Bulletin

The Western Athletic Conference of the future held its own against the Mountain West schools in the 21 men's and women's events held during the 1998-99 seasons.

Led by Fresno State and Southern Methodist, WAC schools won 11 league titles to the 10 captured by the eight schools comprising the Mountain West.

Fresno State won five league titles and SMU captured three. Rice, Tulsa and Hawaii won one apiece. The Rainbows' WAC title was in women's volleyball.

Brigham Young won the most league championships this year with seven. The remaining three titles won by future Mountain West schools were by San Diego State, Air Force and Utah.

"The 1998-99 year was difficult for obvious reasons," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said in a release. "But I'm proud of the competitive manner in which all the championships were conducted.

"It was good to see that member institutions could put their differences aside to make the 1998-99 year most memorable for the student-athletes. I also am proud of the fact that the continuing WAC members showed the strength of their overall programs by winning more than half of the championships conducted. It is a solid block to build upon as the WAC maps a new course for the future."

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