The latest on the Return Of The WAC, Boise State-MWC context and more
Please excuse a brief departure from our regular publishing schedule so we can talk more about conference realignment in the West.
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Today, I’d like to spend a little time on a subject that I’ve covered pretty regularly here on Extra Points, conference realignment. I have a few updates, and a little bit of context, that might you make sense of what’s been happening in the news.
The WAC is back, baby
Extra Points readers knew all the way back in October that Southern Utah was expected to leave the Big Sky and head to the WAC. We knew back in November that multiple Texas programs in the Southland Conference were looking at jumping to the WAC as well. Those four programs are expected to be Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin, Lamar and Abilene Christian.
I understand many Southland fans were skeptical about this, which I understand. I’m a writer based in Chicago, after all. But now my report has been confirmed by my buddies over at Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, by KSL out in Utah, and by Kendall Rodgers, the D1Baseball sage who also broke the ASUN news.
Barring something wild at the 11th hour, this is happening. Is anything else happening?
My friend Sean Walker over at KSL reported that WAC schools are also pushing Weber State to leave the Big Sky for the WAC. That’d be an enormous get, as Weber is not only one of the best FCS football programs in the West, but a strong men’s basketball program as well. Industry folks I’ve talked to over the last 48 hours told me they do not expect Weber to actually make the jump now, and that the Big Sky is not expecting any other current Big Sky institution to jump to the WAC at this time.
One potential reason for a last-minute push to add Weber? The current projected WAC football lineup, of the Texas four, plus Southern Utah, Dixie State and Tarleton State, gives the WAC seven FCS football programs, but Dixie State and Tarleton are still going through the D-1 reclassification process. They’re not eligible for postseason play, and won’t be until 2024. Per NCAA bylaws, the WAC would need six postseason eligible programs to get an FCS football auto-bid to the playoffs.
Based on what I’ve been told so far, I think it is possible that the WAC may be able to secure an NCAA waiver, depending on when the new WAC additions will go into effect. If the conference can agree to terms with another school that is an institutional and competitive fit, they’ll do it, but I do not believe, as of now, that another addition is required for everybody else to make the jump.
So why would the Southland schools do this?
I’ll be interested to hear exactly how the schools explain their reasoning for leaving the Southland, but the rationale I’ve heard from multiple sources is that there’s a tension between the four departing Texas schools, and the remaining Texas institutions (Incarnate Word and Houston Baptist) and the Louisiana programs, mostly over financial investment in athletics. The ability to pay for additional facility improvements, staffing upgrades and other athletic department investments does not appear to be uniform across the Southland right now, and that gulf may only get wider over the next few years.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth repeating. Don’t be surprised if you see schools at the FCS or lower D-1 level decide to move to a “worse” league, at least on paper, over the next few years. Nobody is getting a fat cable TV check at this level, and if a school thinks they’ll have better institutional alignment, or can save money, by switching leagues, they may do it, even if some perceive their new home as less athletically prestigious.
What does this mean for the WAC?
With these changes, the WAC should be solidified as an even more solid Mid-Major men's basketball league and could become a stronger and more stable baseball league.
Depending on how their schedule fills out and how some of the younger programs develop, it could become a decent FCS football league, but I’m skeptical it’ll be a strong one right out of the box. I’m kinda bullish about the potential of Dixie State and Tarleton, but there are always growing pains during a D-1 transition.
My biggest takeaway is that these moves give the WAC flexibility. I do not think this is the final chapter in the WAC’s membership story. There’s a non-trivial chance, for example, that Chicago State is not a WAC member in a few years. New Mexico State could potentially earn an invite to an FBS conference. Other league schools, particularly the non-football ones, could theoretically be poached away. That happens.
But now, the WAC has a new identity. There’s a more clearly defined institutional profile. And should they need to backfill any new membership openings, they’ll have more options than they did say, six years ago. There are other D-II programs in the WAC footprint that could potentially jump to D-I later this decade, and perhaps other Big Sky schools could later change their mind in the future. You never know!
If you had asked me nine months ago if this was possible, I would have said no. I don’t know exactly what the future holds for the WAC now, but I feel comfortable saying it’s one with much more possibility than the one they had in 2019.
Boise State’s Bryan Harsin wanted the Broncos out of the MWC. How much does that matter?
I gotta tip my cap to the folks at the Idaho Press, whose creative use of Open Records led to this fun revelation. Boise State’s football coach told other university leaders the school should ditch the Mountain West.
On Sept. 11, Harsin emailed then-athletic director Curt Apsey and university president Marlene Tromp to share his thoughts about a recent Mountain West conference call. At the time the conference had previously voted to postpone the fall football season indefinitely due to COVID-19.
“That leads into the conference conversation that we need to address again and for as long as it takes to put a plan together to move,” Harsin wrote. “NOW is the time! The longer it takes the longer we stay in the MW. I am 1000% convinced we need to make this move for football and if that means other sports too in the long run it will be what’s best for this University.
Boise State’s frustrations with Mountain West Conference leadership weren’t just about the decision to postpone the football season. Earlier this year, the school threatened to sue over the league’s new TV contract, where other conference institutions decided they didn’t want to keep paying Boise their contractually obligated bonuses. The league eventually folded, and Boise got to keep the bonuses.
I can’t say I’m very surprised that Harsin would express such frustration. The expectations and importance of Boise State football absolutely do outstrip that of many of their conference peers, and the political situation around COVID in Idaho was very different than it was in California. I’m a little surprised that he sent some emails to school leadership about it, but only because he actually used his university email account, something most football coaches don’t do.
But the really interesting thing is that Boise State apparently listened! From the story:
Two days earlier, Apsey had indicated in an email to Harsin and Tromp that he engaged in conversations about the school’s future with at least two conferences.
“I did talk with the commissioner and for now, until they get through COVID, they are pushing the pause button,” Apsey wrote of an unnamed conference. “She continued to reference faith based, private institutions as the mission and didn’t think they were interested in expansion at this point.”
Folks, you don’t need to be Encyclopedia Brown to figure out that they’re talking about Gloria Nevarez and the WCC here. And for what it’s worth, the last time I talked to Nevarez, last year, she brought up how the shared institutional profile among WCC schools was a real benefit of the league. I’d be shocked if the conference brought in a public school, even as an affiliate member, while she’s in charge.
Boise also apparently talked to the Big West:
Apsey also indicated he attempted to talk to another conference — but this time was specific.
“I also have a call into Dan Butterly (Big West) but haven’t heard back yet,” he wrote.
Conspicuously absent? The Big Sky, which contains former rival Idaho. No matter how mad Boise State gets at the MWC, I can’t imagine a world where they’d ever be angry enough to share a league with Idaho again.
Boise State’s leadership later put out a public statement, which doesn’t exactly say they’re never going to leave the conference:
“We intend to continue to build our athletic program and excel in the Mountain West. We will strive to be our very best academically and athletically and will stay laser-focused on our collective efforts to achieve those ends,” Tromp said. “College athletics today is a very fluid environment. As we’ve said in the past, it is our responsibility to continue to look for opportunities to advance Boise State athletics and to compete at the very highest levels. We respect our colleagues in the Mountain West and are proud to be members of the league.”
Just my humble opinion? I think they ought to go independent in football and keep trying to find a home for everything else
I’m not sure the basic tensions between Boise and the rest of the MWC can really be resolved. Boise’s football brand is more valuable than any other brand in the conference. Boise wants to be more ambitious in football than everybody else. The other schools don’t love the idea of giving Boise additional money and influence. Unless you think another school is somehow going to rise up and become another Boise, how does that conflict get meaningfully resolved in the near future? Another flashpoint feels far more likely.
Would Boise State make a lot more money as an independent? Probably not, although depending on how they schedule, it’s not difficult to imagine them putting together a package with ESPN that’s similar to what BYU has. That would include some assistance in scheduling, guaranteed appearances on ESPN platforms, and some sort of bowl tie-in.
Does that limit their ability to make the College Football Playoff? Yeah, but Boise isn’t ever going to make that anyway unless the playoff expands.
But at the very least, as an independent, you’d get to control and “lead” exactly how you want to do it. The Mountain West can go back to a more egalitarian leadership and financial distribution model. Maybe everybody doesn’t make quite as much money, but hey, money isn’t everything.
And hey, if Boise can’t find a spot in the Big West or something, might I make a suggestion?
Maybe give the WAC a call.
Maybe you can go home again.
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