Mountain West’s move turned into a step down
When most of the current members of the Mountain West Conference met in a secret session nearly a decade ago, they had no idea what would transpire in the upcoming century.
There were plenty of obituaries written about the teams left behind in the fractured Western Athletic Conference that eventually lost four more members in the coming campaigns, including Texas Christian, the latest addition to the rival MWC.
At first glance, it didn't look good as Brigham Young, Utah, Colorado State, the Air Force Academy, San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Wyoming and New Mexico formed a strong coalition of football and basketball teams that the leftover WAC had a hard time matching.
It wasn't long before the schools from the Lone Star State grew antsy, as one by one TCU, Southern Methodist, Rice and Texas-El Paso left the building, taking Tulsa with them. Once again, the WAC borrowed teams from the Big West Conference, an equally loose outfit of schools always looking for bigger and brighter horizons.
Despite the split, the WAC held its own in men's basketball, thanks in part to TCU, Fresno State and Tulsa early on, and Nevada and New Mexico State of late. But football clearly belonged to the Mountain West, as Utah became the first non-BCS team to play in a major bowl under the guidance of current Florida head coach Urban Meyer.
Here lately, however, Cinderella's slipper has found a comfortable fit in the WAC. Boise State, Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada provide enough star power at the top to offset the struggling programs of Utah State, Idaho and New Mexico State on the bottom.
The WAC was helped further when the Mountain West decided to spur ESPN's television package for its own -- a curious decision, as the WAC gladly stepped in to fill the weekend vacancies. The result is a national audience, albeit a small one, that can tune in Friday, Saturday and even Sunday nights, and get a chance to see the indoor football format taken to the wide screen.
A few weeks back, Nevada and Boise State set an NCAA Division I record for most points scored in a game dating back to when records were kept in 1937. It was an entertaining 69-67 4 OT thriller won by Boise and seen by the country on ESPN.
BOISE STATE'S magical run last year that culminated with another thrilling OT win, this time over national power Oklahoma, highlighted that a few non-BCS schools in certain seasons can rub shoulder pads with the big boys. Now, it's Hawaii's turn to share the non-BCS stage as the Warriors enter the final phase of a pressure-packed season as the WAC has not one, but two teams in the Top 25.
It's no secret Hawaii could use the money and the prestige that come with a BCS bid. It's also important for the school and the well-being of UH athletic director Herman Frazier, who has the tough task of re-signing June Jones and awarding a local television contract at the start of the new year no matter how the Warriors finish in football.
Those issues are critical locally, but equally important are the needs of the WAC. This league could use back-to-back BCS paydays to help programs like Idaho and Utah State develop into real Division I football teams. It aids in negotiations with the television networks, who like to showcase a talented underdog now and then.
It also keeps the Mountain West in the WAC's shadow, something league commissioner Karl Benson enjoys most of all. He was the commish when the front-range schools of the Rockies opted out for the MWC without so much as a phone call. He'd like nothing better than to be at the Sugar Bowl as well, if Hawaii can keep tight inside Cinderella's slippers over the final weeks of the season.
Sports Editor Paul Arnett
has been covering sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1990. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org