That Time the Western Athletic Conference Almost Came Back to Life

The Western Athletic Conference has seen its share of ups and downs in its history.

While the current iteration is rather down – UMKC is “developing a plan for the future” before even searching for a new athletic director, while Chicago State is just trying to remain open for business – we’re only eight years removed from a season that saw the WAC place two football teams in the top twelve of the final AP rankings.

Interestingly enough, it was right around that same time that things started to unravel for the WAC.

“The reason I’m in this job today is because we had run out of football options (in the WAC),” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told me while talking at Sun Belt Media Day.

“We were a lot of close deals that didn’t materialize, but the final one was when Montana and Montana State said no to the WAC. Because if Montana and Montana State had said yes, Cal Davis and Cal Poly were prepared to come in and we would have rebuilt the WAC with that, with those four schools. Who knows if it would still be alive today but it probably would have survived.”

That was a WAC that was peaking; Fresno State went 8-5 and finished fourth in the conference, while Boise, Nevada, and Hawaii went a combined 35-6. When Boise left that following summer to round out the Mountain West to 10 teams, the WAC could have had the quartet of Montana, Montana State, Cal Poly and UC Davis and had something that looked like this:

East

  • New Mexico State
  • Utah State
  • Idaho
  • Nevada
  • Montana
  • Montana State

West

  • Cal Poly
  • UC Davis
  • Fresno State
  • San Jose State
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana Tech (I guess)

As you can see, Louisiana Tech is a bit of an oddball in this ever-west-shifting plan, which makes the next moment that much harder to swallow. Again, per Benson:

The big near miss was that in August of 2010 I was driving my daughter Jessica to Los Angeles to move her into her dorm at USC, and I had a coat and tie in the back so that I could stop in Provo, Utah to announce that BYU was going to rejoin the WAC in all sports except football, but with a football scheduling alliance like what ND has with the ACC.

As I’m driving to Los Angeles I get a call from Stan Albrecht. the Utah State president who was the chairman of the board at that time, and he said ‘I just got a call from the Boise State president (Bob Kustra) wanting to know if we were interested in joining the Mountain West.’

The Mountain West had gotten wind of what we were doing. In order for BYU to agree to this, they were requiring a pledge that Fresno State and Nevada had to stay in the league. We had signed the paperwork, we had the agreement but we didn’t have the deal done. So Utah State tells the Boise State guy he’s not interested.

So Boise calls the Fresno president, and he says yeah we’d be interested. And he calls Milton Glick at Nevada and he says ‘well, we’ve got this pledge’ and Kustra says ‘well, I’ve just talked to John Welty at Fresno State and he’s ready to do it.’

So Fresno and Nevada get on the phone and agree to do it, and the sunufabitches accepted an invitation to the Mountain West. What’s interesting in that is if BYU had made that move, our next move would have been to get UTEP back. Then the next move would have been… somebody else maybe, and the Mountain West may have been in jeopardy.

So then in such a scenario, I imagine BYU comes into the fold, and Conference USA inadvertently trades UTEP for Louisiana Tech, which would leave the WAC in the following position:

Membership circa 2013-ish

East

  • New Mexico State
  • Utah State
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Montana State

West

  • UTEP
  • Cal Poly
  • UC Davis
  • San Jose State
  • Hawaii

You’ll note that BYU, Fresno, and Nevada are gone. I personally am of the opinion that there’s a reason those two were so easily flipped to the MWC, and their departure was going to happen eventually. I’m also guessing at divisions since UTEP really would belong in the East in this configuration, but then the divisions are lopsided.

It’s possible that the strikeouts on Montana/Montana State (who passed on FBS entirely, not just the WAC) and then the interference of Darth Kustra simply accelerated the inevitable.

It’s also possible that a Mountain West that went into the 2012 season with only eight football-playing members (Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Boise State, Wyoming, UNLV, and TCU) would have lost the Horned Frogs to the Big 12 and been in survival mode themselves.

We can obviously debate about the actual likelihood of any of these scenarios, but we may not have been too far from a 2018 season where we had fun reminiscing about “that time the MWC tried to be a thing” as we sat around watching #WACAfterDark football.

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