An Obituary to the WAC and the Orphans It Leaves Behind


May 5th, 2013

The Western Athletic Conference, known fondly to its friends and neighbors as the WAC, died this week a year after it was diagnosed with an untreatable illness, following the departure of five of its schools. The venerable old WAC is survived by its orphaned older children Idaho and New Mexico and its young infant children Seattle U, Denver, and UT-Arlington.

The WAC has been ill for years, but he was a resilient old codger who just would not give into adversity.  This proud conference of 50+ years managed to survive the first massive defection back in 1999 when eight of its most important and long standing members, including BYU, Utah, New Mexico, and San Diego State jumped ship.  They managed to regroup by picking up the pieces of the Southwest Conference by adding teams like Rice, SMU, TCU, and Tulsa, only to seem them jump ship (along with UTEP) to Conference USA in 2005.

In came Boise State, Nevada, Idaho, New Mexico State, Utah State, and Louisiana Tech (always seemed a strange fit) and the WAC seemed to have found stability. They had established themselves as a regional minor football conference where the universities they represented were all similar in size, academic standing, and quality of athletics (with Boise State being the obvious outlier). I always thought it would be better for both conferences had the WAC and Conference USA swapped UTEP (70 miles from New Mexico State) with Louisiana Tech.

But, the beginning of the end really began when that little statement from Bill Delaney stated that the Big Ten was interested in possibly expanding. People immediately began to envision and ultimately exaggerate what they might do; talking expansion to maybe to 14 or 16 teams, and how they would pick and choose the best universities from the ACC or Big East or Big 12 and possibly even Notre Dame and suddenly expansion panic hit all across America. While the Big Ten ultimately chose to add just one team (and only after Nebraska asked to be invited in), the chaos it has left in its path has been maddening.

Soon Boise State busted out of the WAC and off to the Mountain West, only to now enter the geographically ridiculous Big East. The only thing more ridiculous is San Diego State joining them. With the Mountain West also losing TCU, they decided to follow up on their 1999 defection by poaching Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii from their little brother. So, the WAC suddenly found its remaining members in a conference too small to get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and without much in the way of options in football.

So, the WAC decided to get creative. They managed to work out a deal to add Texas State- San Marcos and UT San Antonio from FCS, plus Seattle U, Denver, and UT-Arlington in basketball (and other sports). In addition, they actually would get Boise State back in all sports except football. While certainly not the most marquee conference in the country, it seemed like they had something to work with. That is until the Mountain West decided to sneak into the game reserve again and start hunting the last of the tasty morsels available on the plains.

This time, they decided to steal Utah State and San Jose State. And, why wouldn’t these two schools go? They risk being stranded the way Idaho and New Mexico State are about to be. In addition, Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio will be bolting for Conference USA and Texas State- San Marcos to the Sun Belt conference. Now the WAC appears to without any real options to save itself.

Once this goes down, they will have just two FBS football members in Idaho and New Mexico State. In basketball, they will also have Seattle U, Denver, and UT-Arlington. But, with only five members, they will still be two short of having enough to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.  So, what is this conference to do?

There are not many independents left out there, but there are at least a couple of plausible options. There is a conference does not have autobid to the NCAA tournament, the Great West Conference. This six team conference ranges from New Jersey to Utah. You have to think Utah Valley State wouldn’t mind staying closer to home. Independent Cal St. Bakersfield had been hoping to get into the Big West Conference (who until this year was a California-only conference). But, with the addition of Hawaii and San Diego State in basketball, they have been edged out. So, you would have to think the Roadrunners would look toward the WAC.  If they could pull in those two, they’d make it to seven. But, I doubt that Boise State will stick around. So, the WAC probably needs to add another one or two teams.

Looking back at the Great West Conference,  Texas-Pan American is the only other team not slated to join a conference (North Dakota is joining the Big Sky). There has been  discussion for UC-San Diego to rise up to Division I and they would be a potential member. They asked to get into the Big West to be with their California state school bretheren. But, they were rejected with Hawaii came calling. Something tells me Hawaii won’t still it out though.

So, will the WAC survive?

It’s hard to imagine. Instead, I see more instability in conference realignment coming up that will bring opportunities for teams to move around. The Big Sky is at 11 schools. They could add one more to make it an even 12 in basketball. Would that team be Denver or Seattle U? Either would fit with regional rivals available for both. Also, while North Dakota is joining, they are a bit of a regional outlier, so they may look east to the Horizon, Summit, or Missouri Valley Conference if they get the chance. One also has to think Idaho might consider dropping their football to FCS and joining their friends in the Big Sky.

The WCC is at 10 and seems unlikely to expand. But, if BYU were to decide to join the Big 12 or return to the MWC, then that additional opening could be a landing spot for Seattle U (if Gonzaga doesn’t block it) or Denver.

But, the one who clearly in the biggest trouble is New Mexico State. Where are they going to go? Las Cruces is just 70 miles from El Paso and UTEP. But, would Conference USA pull them in when the conference is already so large and ranges from Florida to West Virginia to West Texas? Probably not. Mountain West? Uh no. Big Sky? Maybe, but seems unlikely as they are already bursting at the seems and would probably want to take a team in their core area like Idaho or Denver instead. Big West?

What will happen to New Mexico State? Sadly, they appear to be on the outside looking in…

But, for those who mourn the death of the WAC, there is a bit of a silver lining. The WAC is not truly dead. They are just a new conference with a different name. It’s called the Mountain West Conference. Given that all of its current and future members were formerly members of the WAC, the WAC remains alive and well. It just changed its name and went into a witness protection program.