LaVell remembers: Withering WAC has been a revolving door for years

May 14 2012 - 3:34pm

SALT LAKE CITY -- Mention the Western Athletic Conference to Hall of Fame coach LaVell Edwards, and he thinks back to Brigham Young's 1984 national championship with a junior quarterback named Robbie Bosco and a team that wasn't even ranked when the season started.

It's a high point that seems like ancient history now.

The football conference that once was so big it spanned four time zones and required quadrants to arrange its 16 teams, is withering.

"I feel bad for the WAC," said the retired Edwards, an assistant at BYU when it and five other schools banded together in 1962 to form the conference. "That was a great conference. It had a lot of teams that were coming on the scene, getting better all the time."

This fall could very well be the league's last as a football entity as defections have decimated the WAC ranks.

Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada jump to the Mountain West this fall. In 2013, Utah State and San Jose State also leave for the Mountain West, while Louisiana Tech heads to Conference USA.

Texas-San Antonio will play this fall in the WAC but decided to jump to Conference USA for 2013 as well. Texas State also will play one season in the WAC before jumping to the Sun Belt in 2013.

That leaves two remaining football schools: Idaho and New Mexico State.

Trying to figure out where to go from here is interim Commissioner Jeff Hurd, who called the last few months hectic, frustrating and challenging and knows a decision that offers long-term stability, not just a quick fix, is needed soon.

He refuses to concede the WAC will become a non-football conference, though that is certainly one option.

He knows some already have written off the WAC completely.

"If the WAC goes bust, it won't be from a lack of effort and lack of exploring every possible avenue there is," said Hurd, who is working with a consultant, athletic administrators and the WAC's board.

His belief is based on WAC history, specifically the 16-team conference's split just three years after it became the biggest in the land.

"Every newspaper column I read (back then said the) WAC was done," Hurd said. "It was done as a football league, was done as a conference, and couldn't possibly survive without the schools that left.

"I think we not only recovered from that, but very nicely. I believe with every fabric of my being the same thing will happen. We can recover from this and rebuild."

Hurd cited the Clint Eastwood movie -- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly -- when describing the 26 years he has been part of the WAC.

"The bad and ugly fall into the same category -- primarily the constant movement the league has experienced over the past 15 years," he said. "It seems to me if it's not been a revolving door, it's close to it. That's been frustrating."

While some see the WAC as the Rodney Dangerfield of conferences in that it gets no respect, it has had more than its share of success -- and stars.

Steve Young (BYU), Marshall Faulk (San Diego State) and LaDainian Tomlinson (TCU) played their entire college careers in the WAC. Chad Hennings (Air Force, 1987) won an Outland Trophy; Ty Detmer (BYU, 1990) won a Heisman; and Hall of Fame basketball coach Don Haskins (UTEP) followed up his historic NCAA championship in 1966 by joining the WAC a year later and winning seven conference titles, mentoring players such as Nate Archibald and Tim Hardaway along the way.

In 1996, the WAC became so big, expanding from 10 to 16 teams -- some, including BYU's Edwards -- thought it was too big.

"In retrospect, perhaps the WAC was ahead of its time," Hurd said, pointing to the super-conferences of today. "The unfortunate part is it was never really given an opportunity to succeed."

The 16-team alignment lasted just three seasons before Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming left to form the Mountain West Conference.

Boise State was added in 2001 but it left the league to play in the Mountain West starting in 2011.

The devastating blow, Idaho athletic director Rob Spear said, came when Fresno State and Nevada found a way in 2010 to get out of their agreement to stay in the WAC, "creating a tremendous amount of turmoil" within the league.

Other dominos would fall across the country, many driven by the lure of additional television revenue.

But it was the defections that gave "the perception of instability," Hurd said.

That, in turn, made it more difficult to negotiate television contracts.

"It may not be all about money, but certainly money plays a very significant role in it," Hurd said,

In other cases, "There's almost a fear of being left out or left behind as conferences reconfigure."

At this point, the ones left behind are the Aggies and Vandals.

Both schools could try independence, though that is a tough road.

The Big Sky definitely wants Idaho to become its 14th football-playing member, joining regional schools Idaho State, Eastern Washington, Montana and Montana State.

Commissioner Doug Fullerton said the Big Sky may be part of the Football Conference Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA -- but he argues that it wouldn't be a step down for Idaho.

He said the Idaho Vandals would become stronger in the FCS than at the bottom of the FBS "because they will become successful."

As for the WAC, Fullerton wasn't as optimistic. He said he can envision it disappearing completely in one year, or playing only basketball -- but would be surprised, "barring major help," if it remains an FBS conference.

Lawrence Fan, sports information director at San Jose State, was thankful to be among the nearly two dozen FBS schools nationwide with WAC ties.

"It's all part of progress," Fan said. "Without membership in the WAC, San Jose State would not be where it is today in Division I-A athletics. San Jose State needed the WAC and the WAC extended its arms to San Jose State. That has to be remembered."

The 1984 BYU team, meanwhile, still is hailed as the last school outside one of the major football conferences to win a national championship

"A lot of things fell into place," the 81-year-old Edwards said recently.

BYU pulled off a road upset of No. 3 Pittsburgh during ESPN's first live college football broadcast, survived a nail-biter against Hawaii then rallied behind a beat-up Bosco to beat Michigan in the Holiday Bowl.

"If that same team would have played in the last two-three years, I think we would have been like TCU or Boise State," Edwards said. "They were good. They got a BCS game, but never got a smell as far as a national championship game."

 

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