Thursday, August 19, 2010

The wild west realignment brawl

Just when I thought the latest round of conference realignment was over, along comes a new episode of conference-hopping, this time involving the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) and the Mountain West Conference (MWC). There are rumors that Conference USA in general and the University of Houston in particular could somehow become involved as well.

The seeds for the latest and greatest collegiate sports reshuffling were sowed by the previous round of conference realignment, which saw the Big Twelve reduced to ten teams and the Pac-10 and Big Ten expanded to twelve teams. Utah's jump from the MWC, a conference that does not automatically qualify for the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), to the Pac-10, a conference that does, apparently didn't sit well with Utah's big rival, BYU. As they saw how Utes stood to benefit from their association with the Pac-10, the Cougars grew green - as in money - with envy.

So BYU decided to explore leaving the MWC and becoming an independent in football. The LDS-owned school, given its reasonably successful track record as well as the support it enjoys from Mormons nationwide, apparently fancied itself as the Notre Dame of the west; becoming a football independent would allow the Cougars to control their own television revenue stream, Like Notre Dame, play a "national" schedule of their choosing, like Notre Dame, and perhaps even achieve special status relative to the BCS, like Notre Dame. Whether that last part actually happens, however, is open to debate, as's Stewart Mandel explains:
In nearly any season, a 10-2 Notre Dame team will get a BCS berth, no questions asked. It's doubtful a 10-2 BYU team playing its own version of a "national" schedule would get similar treatment from voters. It is possible, however, that just by separating itself as an independent -- by shedding that "non-BCS" stigma -- BYU's perception among voters would improve. It's also possible a couple more years of national rankings might merit an invite from the remodeling Big 12 or another look from the Pac-10.

Then again, it's also possible voters would treat the Cougars like Navy, which won 10 games last season and didn't even crack the final Top 25.

It's easy to see why BYU, as a religious institution with a passionate fan base, would choose to emulate Notre Dame. But the weird reality of college football is that winning more games than Notre Dame (as the Cougars have each of the past four seasons) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame. Playing on national television every week (as nearly every Big Ten and SEC team now does) doesn't turn you into Notre Dame.

If BYU were to go independent, it would need a need a place for its other sports, i.e. basketball, baseball, volleyball and the like, to play, much the way Notre Dame's other sports play in the Big East. It was obvious that the MWC would not be amenible to such an arrangement, BYU began having discussions with the WAC.

The prospect of losing a high-profile program like BYU, however, obviously hasn't been sitting well with the MWC and its commissioner, Craig Thompson. In a move that would make Machiavelli proud, he and the presidents of the remaining MWC schools threw a wrench in BYU's plans by inviting WAC schools Nevada and Fresno State to join the conference. Both schools have long desired to join the MWC and quickly jumped at the opportunity; Wednesday night the presidents and athletic directors of both schools held press conferences to that effect.

Needless to say, the resulting damage to the WAC has been immense. Not only have their dreams of having onetime WAC member BYU rejoin their conference, if only for the non-football sports, been dashed, but they've also now lost one-third of their membership to the MWC (Boise State, you'll recall, made the jump from the WAC to the MWC during this summer's previous realignment rumble). WAC Commissioner Karl Benson, needless to say, is not happy. He intends to punish Fresno State and Nevada any way he can:
Fresno State and Nevada should not expect any parting gifts from the other members of the Western Athletic Conference when the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack leave for the Mountain West.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson said Thursday that each departing school will have to pay a $5 million fee to his league and wait until 2012 to move after accepting the MWC's invitation and dismantling an agreement the WAC was on the verge of completing with BYU.

The Cougars were in line to rejoin the WAC in all sports other than football, in which BYU would have become an independent.

Benson called Fresno State and Nevada's decision "selfish."

Benson is right. It is selfish. But it's clear that he also understands that it's part of the business of modern college football. The inherently unfair BCS system has left schools ruthlessly scrambling for access and advantage, as ESPN's Pat Forde explains:

The root cause of this particular form of conference cannibalism is none other than the BCS. If college football had an equitable means of crowning a national champion, one that was at least in theory open to teams from all leagues, would all this be happening?

"Probably not," Benson said. "That's a fair question. I think we're all chasing the BCS; we're all chasing recruiting exposure and notoriety and the financial windfall that comes with the BCS. We're all positioning ourselves for a bigger piece."

That's why, in this decade, conferences have attacked each other with a remarkable degree of avarice and a general disregard for collegiality. All the high-minded ideals university bigwigs like to talk about have been tossed aside in the brass-knuckles fight for increased revenue.

And in the bigger-is-better world of college sports, the painful side effects trickle down to the weak. The ACC attacked the Big East, which responded by gutting Conference USA. The Big Ten nearly poached the Big 12 out of existence. And once the Pac-10 destabilized the Mountain West by pilfering Utah, that left the MWC and WAC in an eye-gouging struggle to survive.

"In today's intercollegiate environment," Benson said, "[raiding other leagues] has become fairly routine and fairly standard."

Ironically, there's word that the MWC actually tried to lure an additional school away from the WAC: Utah State. The folks in Logan, however, apparently turned down the offer out of loyalty to their current conference:

In an open letter posted on the school's website Thursday, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes wrote that, upon learning earlier this week of the potential for BYU to leave, "MWC leadership contacted three WAC members inquiring about their interest in joining the MWC."

Then, in somewhat of a surprise, Barnes wrote that "Utah State was the first of these three contacts." Barnes added that Utah State declined the invitation because they were "committed to uphold[ing] our agreement with fellow WAC members", in part because USU "believed all WAC members would remain committed" to the solidarity pact reached by the member schools last Friday.
Utah State's dedication and commitment to its existing conference is refreshing and admirable. But it's also very quaint. The Aggies now risk being on the outside looking in when the dust settles.

And the dust isn't close to settling yet. BYU reportedly has until August 31st to inform the MWC that it is going independent in football, and now that the WAC-for-other-sports option is apparently off the table, a lot of serious consideration is going to have to take place in athletic offices in Provo and church boardrooms in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, there's late word that Conference USA could become involved in the ongoing realignment mayhem:
Two sources with knowledge of the discussions told the Orlando Sentinel on Thursday one of the scenarios being discussed includes a possible merger of 20 teams from the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA, with the champion claiming an automatic BCS bowl bid. However, the sources stated such an agreement is complex, could easily fall apart and is far from being completed.
A 20-team conference seems a bit far-fetched to me, but one thing I've learned about conference realignment is to expect the unexpected. Another possibility being rumored is a BCS play-in game between the MWC and C-USA:
Late Thursday night, a source close to the situation said that representatives from the Mountain West and another league -- believed to be Conference USA -- met in Colorado to discuss a plan to match the two conferences' champions in a title game, with the winner gaining an automatic BCS berth.

"You're on the right track," said the source. "The lawyers have told them [the BCS] that it's time to give someone else a chance."

There's also been speculation - including tweets from various sportswriters - that the University of Houston could be called upon to round out a 12-team MWC if BYU can be persuaded to stay. Needless to say, these rumors have sparked a flurry of discussion on Cougar message boards that normally would be spending this time of year discussing starting lineups and tailgate menus.

This isn't over yet, and it's likely to get even more interesting in the days ahead.

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