Saturday, July 26, 2003


Benson wants WAC
to be pro-active

The commissioner's plan calls
for the conference to expand
to 12 to keep pace with BCS powers

BOISE, Idaho || Karl Benson has no intention of emulating Nero.

The Western Athletic Conference commissioner made it clear yesterday he isn't fiddling around while the makeup of college sports conferences begins to change drastically, and he is adamant the WAC won't be the fall guy ... again.

His annual state of the league address has often resembled a pep rally. Now the stakes are the highest ever.

Yesterday, in an hourlong forum with the media, Benson embodied the definition of pro-active. He was also, at various times, optimistic and realistic, crystal clear and confusing.

On the practical side, the WAC won't pretend it can compete with the BCS conferences -- except on the playing field, where every team in the league has at least one game scheduled against the big boys. They're almost all on the road and the odds, as usual, are against the WAC teams.

But everyone remembers what Fresno State did two years ago, and what San Jose State did at Illinois last year.

Benson said the 10-school WAC won't sit idly while events unfold regarding major, nationwide conference realignment and a developing battle between Division I college sports' haves and have-nots.

The last thing Benson and his conference can afford is another blindside hit like the one the league took five years ago when eight schools covertly broke away from the rest to form the Mountain West Conference.

Benson outlined strategic planning hatched by the WAC's athletic directors and presidents several months ago comprised of two major goals:

>> Expand the league to 12 schools and split them into geographical divisions, while exploring the feasibility of a football championship game.

Assuming no schools leave the WAC (and many consider this a major assumption), such a plan would put Hawaii, San Jose State, Nevada, Fresno State, Boise State and Texas-El Paso in the Pacific Division, while Tulsa, Southern Methodist, Louisiana Tech, Rice and two newcomers (possibly coming from among Houston, Tulane and Texas Christian) would form a Central Division.

The so-called "Benson Plan" would save travel expenses in all team sports as schools not in the same division would not play each other every year.

"Be the most prominent Division I conference outside of the six BCS conferences," Benson said.

If the WAC can establish itself as dominant over the two conferences it considers its competition, it will gain in television revenue and national respect, the commissioner contends.

"Very clearly the WAC has reached a level on a competitive standpoint where it is on par with both (Mountain West and Conference USA). The next step is to surpass them," he said. "To do that we build assets, increase notoriety across the country. The television factor, bowl game factor and overall financial factor. We build those assets to the point that if and when invitations are extended to our schools they can evaluate and clearly say 'no' to those conferences."

In three of the past four years, a WAC team finished the football season with the best BCS rating of a team not from a power conference, Benson said. He said that helps validate the claim that the WAC is the top conference of the so-called mid-majors.

But the Mountain West still has the better TV contract, and the WAC's negotiations with ESPN -- like many other things -- are on hold while the Big East decides what it will do after the Atlantic Coast Conference grabbed Miami and Virginia Tech.

"Timing-wise everything still rests in the Big East's hands," Benson said.

While the Mountain West will be prudent in inviting new members, Benson said the MWC's timetable is not linked to his. He voiced confidence that Hawaii, Boise State, Nevada and/or Fresno State will decide to stay if invited.

Decision-makers from those schools have been careful not to make any commitments one way or the other.

And the coaches say it's not their call.

"Out of my control," was a favorite phrase yesterday, uttered by several of the 10 WAC head coaches, including Hawaii's June Jones.

While Benson spent most of his talk puffing up the league's collective chest, at one point he spoke vaguely of a self-image problem from within the league. When asked to be more specific, he mentioned that coaches need to do a better job of promoting the league.

Voîla. They did precisely that throughout the day yesterday, taking turns briefing the reporters.

"Happy to be here" Jack Bicknell of former independent Louisiana Tech was first.

"I don't think anyone knows right now exactly what's going on (with realignment). I'm just so happy we have a home in a conference. As far as the rest of the conference, I don't think the WAC has to take a back seat," he said. "If Hawaii doesn't lose its quarterback, we're 3-0 in bowl games last year. In certain circles, the WAC is underrated quite a bit."

They all did their duty in turn, talking up the conference.

Even Jones, the former NFL coach some see as a reluctant WAC member, did his share of leading cheers.

"This conference has a chance to make a name for itself. The last three or four years it has risen to the challenge. If it keeps it up it's got potential to do some things. Our TV ratings out-do (the Mountain West). With the new contract up it has a shot to do some things. It's getting better," Jones said.

But his conclusion just brought home what everybody knows. That being, nobody knows.

"What will be, will be," Jones said.


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