Monday, September 28, 2015

I read this article on New Mexico State not being able to buy full membership in the Sunbelt...

(Here's the link).  And I had to think back to Karl Benson's last days in the WAC which I covered.

Benson had been dealing with a dysfunctional membership for years.  Literally every member of the WAC thought they DESERVED to be in a better conference. With that kind of thought process at every school it must of been damn hard to get them to agree to anything.

They certainly were not receptive to the proposal Benson brought them before everything fell to shit to add Cal Poly and UC Davis.  Both schools (and Sacramento State) were interested in a WAC with Nevada, Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State. Why would the WAC ever need numbers?

Boise State left and Benson and Utah State brokered a deal to bring back BYU, codenamed "The Project".  Benson almost pulled off an unheard of up-the-conference-pecking-order addition.  All that had to happen was everyone had to shut their traps.   Fresno State and Nevada  gleefully stabbed their conference mates and Benson in the back blabbing news of the deal to the MWC.

The MWC leadership recognized that such a deal could bring Boise State back to the WAC and make Benson's WAC the stronger conference in the MW timezone.   The MWC offered deals to Utah State, Nevada, and Fresno State --- programs in the WAC's with well supported basketball programs.

The idea that the MWC would try to pull away members when The Project became public had been discussed.  The WAC school had (they thought) agreed to a solidarity pact and committed to exit fees in order to make BYU leadership comfortable in returning.  Utah State honored their commitments.   Nevada and Fresno State denied theirs and accepted MWC invites, screwing the BYU deal.  In return, they were admitted to the MWC. (Their departure also ended the California FCS trio's sincere interest in the WAC.)

This left the WAC with only 6 members, a fact that put them on the edge of violating the "7/6/5 rule" which stated a conference had to have 7 members, 6 of whom played together for 5 years to remain an FBS conference.

The conference began scrambling to find quality new members.  They began looking at UNT, ULL, Montana, UTSA, and Texas State.  Hawaii was not very excited about far eastern candidates.

The WAC extended invites to UNT and ULL, two sun belt schools that likely would have killed to get in a year earlier, but were looked at as too far away by western WAC conference members.  With Louisiana Tech a constant threat to leave, and UNT fans having soured on the idea after several years of waiting, both schools passed.

Hawaii, only recently removed from having an undefeated regular season, looked at the WAC without their biggest rival Boise State and two of the closest schools in the WAC in the traitorous duo and they questioned how much value playing in the WAC would offer them. 

Their fans thought the Warriors were far better than any school being talked about.  UH basically stopped talking to the WAC and put their Olympic sports in the Big West, even though removing their Olympic sports put the rest of their conference mates in violation of the 7/6/5 rule.

When it became clear that UH was freezing out the WAC and was serious about putting their Olympic sports in the Big West, Benson offered UH a football only membership.  UH tuned him out. Hawaii's fans thought they would play football as an independent if the MWC would not take them as a football-only member.  They planned to leverage local TV and thought they could maybe just afford it. UH just left the WAC outright leaving their conference mates drowning.

(UH would eventually be admitted to the MWC in a deal that compromised their ability to generate TV revenue.  UH has gone 10-30 since joining the MWC.)

Benson and his staff poured over the rules and found some clauses to exploit.  There was a 2 year grace period clause to return to 8 members.

The WAC invited UTSA, Texas State, Montana, and Denver.  All but Montana accepted.

The next June, Seattle would finally be invited.  The following month a surprise entry, UT-Arlington was added.  At the time there was much speculation that UTA may have been admitted in return for a promise to startup a football program, as their basketball arena and attendance were both abysmal.  UTA, like UTSA, had been a fellow outcast as a non-football member in the football heavy Southland conference.

Benson had the WAC up to 11 members.  7 football playing members and four more Olympic-only members.

All the WAC had to do was add one more school willing to play FBS ball and the clock would be reset.  Should a member get poached (likely Louisiana Tech or San Jose State) after that point the rest of the WAC would have two whole full years to find a replacement.  Additionally another member would allow the conference to split into two divisions, dramatically reducing the travel costs that had always killed the WAC schools.

Utah Valley University was a potential FBS playing member.  There were reports that UVU had been squirrelling away $1M a year in order to finance starting up football if it would get them into an FBS conference.   The presence of USU made them a non-candidate.

Benson went out to visit Lamar, another former basketball-only Southland Conference school that was desperate for an FBS invite.  The speculation was that Benson would tour the facility and offer the school an invitation that the school would eagerly accept.   Benson toured the school but an invitation never came.

Lamar lost their vote for inclusion.   Shortly thereafter, Benson, after all of his hard work, asked the conference schools to vote him a raise.  He lost that vote too.  A few weeks later Benson accepted the job as the Sun Belt Commissioner.

Why do I bring this all up?  Because of the votes.   I do not have first hand knowledge of the votes but I will speculate here.

Benson would not have been at Lamar if he didn't want them considered.

Benson championed the recent invitations of UTSA, Texas State, Seattle, Denver, & UTA.  He likely had a lot of sway with those schools.

The vote likely focused on what would happen if a school left.  Who would have the sway in picking the next member school?  Western schools likely didn't want Lamar;  Central schools likely did. 

All but Seattle of the new blood was west enough to accept the addition of Lamar.  Louisiana Tech, long the conference outlier was likely also in favor of the addition of another school in a good Texas recruiting area that offered cheap travel.  It is likely Benson had 5 votes for Lamar.

So who voted down Lamar?  Not any of the Texas schools.  Probably not La Tech.  Denver may have been on the fence.

Almost certainly, the leadership at New Mexico State voted them down. Idaho, the other school clearly at the bottom of the WAC FBS pecking order, and the other FBS school most as risk could have saved the conference as an FBS conference if they just voted for Lamar,  but they also likely chose to vote with the Western schools.

If both schools had voted with their brains for Lamar instead of misplaced loyalty to a pair of schools who were actively flirting with the MWC to leave the duo behind, I think the odds are solid that the WAC would still be playing football today, likely with UVU, North Dakota State, Montana, Montana State, and maybe TAMU-CC or Jacksonville State.

And that doesn't cover the Benson raise vote.  Assuming all new members voted for a raise for Benson out of loyalty for him bringing them in out of tough spots, every long term member appears to have voted against a raise for Benson --- likely they blamed him for not delivering on their absurd dreams.  Again, the two schools with the most to lose could have turned that vote too, but chose not to.

Instead both schools are bleeding out over travel costs.

I feel sorry for new Athletic Director Mario Moccia.  It seems like NMSU finally has a competent AD.  He didn't deserve the mess the former AD and school presidents left him.

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