Star-Bulletin Sports

Tuesday, April 24, 2001


UH logo

Mortimer takes
a look back at
the WAC

Optimistic about the conference's
future, still angry about the past,
he hopes UH chooses the
right path

By Kalani Simpson

Outgoing University of Hawaii president Kenneth Mortimer is happy to tell you this: "We beat 'em last year."

He is referring to the ultimate "them." The defectors. The turncoats. The traitors.

The Mountain West Conference.

He tells you that the Western Athletic Conference, the WAC, has a better record of athletic achievement on the field and on the court than the conference that was born of the Breakaway Eight, the schools that abandoned the WAC almost three years ago. Overall, its teams are better, he said. It has the upper hand in head to head matchups. Only one problem. "One advantage they have over us is they have a really great television contract."

And that's how this whole soap opera got started in the first place.

Many sports fans remember Mortimer for his role as chairman of the WAC council of presidents when the league voted to expand to 16 members. And as chair again when the plan fell apart.

Said Mortimer, "It was a good decision at the time."

The "super conference" was unwieldy in practice. Scheduling was difficult, rivalries disappeared.

After a couple years, half the conference bolted, leaving the league in shambles. The 16 team experiment had been a horrible failure, and the WAC was just trying to hold things together. And when the remaining WAC needed a leader, it turned to Mortimer again, for his second time around as chairman. It wasn't his turn. Nobody else wanted the job.

"When I called President Mortimer, I think he recognized the need for active leadership," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "I really believed the WAC hung together and stayed together and survived due to the leadership of President Mortimer."

He was the face and voice of a conference in turmoil.

With his upcoming retirement this June, the Star-Bulletin asked Mortimer to take a look back at his and the WAC's intertwining histories. As he leaves UH, how does he leave the WAC?

Hopefully, he said.

"Right now we have a great deal of confidence of where we're going to be," he said.

Benson shares Mortimer's optimism: "We've come out of the breakup in a lot better shape than anybody anticipated."

The product is saleable now, Mortimer said. The new members brought in to replace traditional standbys have added to the conference, he said. In the summer of 2000, the Bowl Championship Series put the WAC on equal footing with the Mountain West. When TCU leaves for Conference USA next season, and the conference's final shuffling is behind it, the WAC will start an aggressive marketing campaign to spread its optimism to the world. Finally, Mortimer said, the WAC is stable again.

"We have 10 teams, so even if two leave we'll have eight," Mortimer said.

For the WAC these days, that is stable.

But the WAC has learned its lesson. After the sky fell in 1999, the threat of someone leaving is always on the horizon. Now, the WAC braces for it. Now, there is a contingency plan.

The first time, it was a total surprise. "It caught everyone off guard," Benson said.

Mortimer was angry about the defections. He still is, though he said he only thinks about the breakup when someone else brings it up. "Rubbing salt in old wounds," he put it.

The WAC thought it needed to expand. Change was in the air. The Southwest Conference had fallen apart. The Big 12 was forming. The Haves were separating from the Have Nots, and people were worried. The WAC was afraid of getting left behind. It needed stability. It needed a television contract, and to get one, it needed bigger television markets.

As chairman, Mortimer ran the discussions. The question, then, was, Should the WAC expand? "Most everyone agreed we should expand," Mortimer said. The next question was, By how much?

"We decided we've got to make a bold move," Mortimer said.

Maybe. The key was Rice. Were the Owls going to drop big-time football? They weren't. They were available, and so was the Houston TV market. Southern Methodist brought in Dallas/Ft. Worth. Houston and Dallas had numbers, and numbers meant a television contract. The SWC rejects were looking for a home. Texas football meant money for everyone.

That was the theory. And so, the WAC went for bold --welcoming in six new members, including three Southwest Conference outcasts from Texas.

The vote was 5-4. Mortimer is often credited, for good or ill, with casting the deciding vote. This is technically true, but the same could be said for any of the five.

Another of the five, according to Mortimer, was Al Yates of Colorado State, one of the ringleaders in the eventual secession. "I have my notes from that meeting," Mortimer said, to prove that Yates voted to expand to 16. Mortimer said that he was ready to testify to that fact in court, if it ever came to that.

But when the 16 were divided into "quadrants," four subconferences, travel was difficult. Traditional regional rivalries were split up. Some fans were confused and unhappy. And all of this, among athletic directors in the conference, "got three or four people quite angry," Mortimer said.

"Outsiders were looking much more favorably at the WAC at that time than the insiders were," said Benson.

And then, "Five guys met in a room in the Denver airport," Mortimer said. And the new superconference was dead.

In a secret meeting, Colorado State, Air Force, BYU, Wyoming and Utah decided to bolt, and UNLV and New Mexico would soon follow. The fateful summit occurred on the week before the annual WAC meetings.

"Why couldn't you guys have waited four or five days?" Mortimer said recently of his feelings on the matter. "We could have talked about this."

They didn't. The other members of the conference were stunned.

Mortimer was surprised. Then he was angry.

"What they did was illegal, immoral, dishonest and unethical," Mortimer said. Illegal? Yes, Mortimer said. The WAC is a corporation in Colorado. Some members of the corporation conspired against other members of the corporation. "That's a felony."

"I'll always respect President Mortimer for his willingness to step forward and say what needs to be said and take on some of his colleagues during the breakup," said Benson.

The reason for the breakdown in communication was simple, in retrospect. New presidents. The people at the head of the Breakaway Eight, with the exception of Yates, Mortimer is quick to point out, weren't the ones who had agreed to the new deal, or even discussed it.

"They had no historic ties to the rest of us," Mortimer said. No personal ties. The other presidents might eventually have felt the same way about the arrangement, but, "They would have at least called us," Mortimer said.

The decision was made. The 16-team WAC was broken. "Unfortunately, it was derailed before we really had a chance to see if it would work," Benson said.

The Mountain West was born.

Mortimer made noise about UH never playing the defectors again. And even now he says it's "silly" to allow schools known for poaching Hawaii's talent to promise recruits a chance to come home and play in front of family and friends. But Mortimer says that the power to schedule lies in the athletic department, and that's where it should be. Old WAC foes from the Mountain West are starting to creep back onto UH schedules.

"I certainly understand the position the University of Hawaii took," Benson said. "But it didn't take long for me to see if we were going to be competitive with the Mountain West, we had to play them."

The two went their separate ways. The Mountain West kept a lucrative television deal.

"In 1998 we had a very attractive television package," Benson said. "Unfortunately, that television package is what the Mountain West inherited."

The WAC got Louisiana Tech. (The Texas schools got to choose who they wanted from that region, Mortimer said. Boise State and its bowl game were also added to make it 10 teams.) The WAC may be equal or greater to the Mountain West on the field. But it is public perception, and the television revenue that comes with it, that counts. In that measure, Mortimer, said, the WAC is trying to build credibility. He remains optimistic.

"We've been through the fire together," he said. Now, communication is good. Now, he believes, the WAC has suffered and survived the worst, and the good times can begin.

It is the perfect time for Mortimer to step down, and he is retiring from his presidency.

"He had a lot of guts," Benson said. "He was a strong leadership chair. He was willing to take the reins when others were apprehensive.

"One thing I'll remember about him was that he stepped up when we needed someone to step up."

Now there has been noise made about UH joining the Mountain West, joining the defectors. All the old rivalries are there. And the television money. But these are the institutions that met in secret, and abandoned UH. The ones that did all the "illegal, immoral, dishonest and unethical" things, as Mortimer put it. How would he feel, he was asked, if the University of Hawaii were to join this group?

That is up to the University of Hawaii, he said.

But personally, after all his anger, how would it hit him?

Mortimer said that UH has to do what is best for UH. He hopes that is what they do, without regard for recent history. He hopes that is what he would do if he were serving as its president.

That's what the WAC conference did when it decided to expand to 16 teams.

That's what the Breakaway Eight did when it held its secret meeting and left the rest of the conference holding the bag.

UH Athletics
Ka Leo O Hawaii

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