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Back in January, I watched the WAC's celebratory press conference, announcing the new additions of Southern Utah, Abilene Christian, Sam Houston State, Lamar and Stephen F Austin. After spending the bulk of the last decade in the true wilderness of college athletics, the WAC emerged with a new geographical footprint, a new identity, and a new FCS football conference. It was one of the most unlikely stories in recent college sports history, and everyone involved took a well deserved victory lap.
So I was a bit surprised to read, back in July, that WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd was stepping down at the end of this year. When the announcement dropped, I assumed Hurd was simply retiring. He had been the commissioner of the WAC for over a decade, and spent over 35 years with the conference in some capacity. While the league still had important questions to answer, from membership to media rights to operational growth, I figured the hardest part was already done, and hey, maybe it was just time to do something else.
A few weeks ago, I began to hear rumblings that my assumptions were not correct. Hurd is not retiring, contrary to some media reports, and his decision to "step down", as the official press release put it, was not voluntary.
Then, on August 13, College AD posted a nugget in their newsletter, headlined "Sources say the new-look WAC is taking on a life of its own, including what's been dubbed to us as an "ouster" at the top." The story, which is behind a paywall, also included this nugget:
That would be quite the development! I wanted to find out more, so I called everybody I know associated with the WAC. I spoke to several individuals involved in conference administration, who work as athletic directors for member schools, and who work deep in the industry. I wanted to understand not just what was going on with the league's commissioner change, but if there was tension among league membership, and where everybody thought this league was headed.
One thing absolutely every single person told me? There's no Texas Coup happening, and even if there was, Tarleton State isn't running it
League sources, both affiliated with Texas institutions and at other schools, emphasized that it wouldn't be accurate to depict league tension or divisions along Texas and Not-Texas battle lines. Furthermore, Tarleton State isn't even a full D-I member. Every single person I talked to said that Tarleton's internal influence as some sort of fulcrum for change was highly overstated, with some sources driving that point home with language I try to avoid using on Extra Points.
For what it's worth, prior to reporting this article, multiple WAC ADs told me that they were impressed with how well the league's ADs worked together. While reporting this story, I heard the exact same feedback.
What exactly happened with Commissioner Hurd? That's not totally clear.
The exact details varied so much from source to source that even now, despite having talked to multiple people familiar with the process, I'm not certain exactly how everything happened. Every version of the story shared a few similarities, though.
- The idea that Hurd was summarily dismissed on the spot in some dramatic fashion...was not true.
- It was communicated to Hurt that his contract was not going to be renewed.
- The exact reasoning for going in a different direction was not communicated in the final board meeting, other than the league presidents communicating that they felt the league was entering a new era, with new needs and challenges.
What are some of those new challenges? In the short term, there's membership and media rights
To be clear, those are very recent challenges. Multiple sources told me that they expect the WAC to officially announce a new media rights deal with ESPN+ in the very near future. Not every AD in the league initially supported the move, but I was told that eventually, the vote to move in that direction was unanimous.
Right now, the league currently sits at 13 schools. Back in January, Hurt and other league leaders indicated that they wanted to eventually get to 14 schools, with the new addition, ideally, to be an FCS-football playing institution located in or near Texas.
That might not happen for a while, if it happens at all. Multiple league sources indicated to me that they believed it was very important to not expand simply for the sake of expanding to fill out a league schedule or secure an FCS auto-bid. If the league was to expand, it needed to do so with a member who "would be able to complete and participate on day one.", and not just in football, but across multiple sports.
There are not many schools that fit that criteria at the moment. One source at a Texas institution told me that he believed his school would be reluctant to support the inclusion of any other Southland schools, like perhaps Incarnate Word, or McNeese State, without "significant changes to their business plans." After all, he told me, "we left the Southland because we sought to better align with schools that fit our long-term goals. Why would we turn around and add those same schools, unless they made big changes?"
Multiple league sources also told me they believed that as of now, adding a D-II school would be unlikely, as the league would prefer to not have three members of the conference reclassifying at the same time. That would further limit the potential expansion pool. Sources told me they expected the league to be patient, waiting until next year, or even potentially longer, to add new members. After all, Big 12 and other conference realignment decisions elsewhere in college sports could create trickle-down effects that might free up a new candidate to potentially join the league. Another league source added that while nobody wanted to push another school out of the league, it was always possible that the WAC could lose a school, dropping their membership back to an even 12.
But long term? There's a bigger, philosophical question...one with real risks, but real opportunities.
Namely, what does this league want to be, and how much risk are they comfortable taking on to get there?
Here's how one conference AD explained it to me. "Over the last decade, this conference had to do a lot of things to just survive. They weren't making membership decisions from a position of strength. They weren't governing from a position of strength. They just needed to keep enough members together to hang on."
"But that isn't our league anymore. We have an identity. We have some very strong members. Now, we need to change the way we approach everything."
One undeniable advantage? This league has some big schools, and many could get even bigger. Utah Valley University is now the biggest public school in Utah, with over 40,000 students. UTRGV is one of the 15 fastest growing public schools in the country, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, with enrollment growing over 58% from the last decade. One of the largest and fastest growing private schools? Grand Canyon. Cal
Not every school fits this description (like Seattle, with an enrollment of under 8,000), but most of the rest of the league now includes schools that are rapidly growing. Even several schools with smaller enrollments, like Cal Baptist and Dixie State, are growing.
This, far more than state lines, is where I am told tensions and disagreements are most likely to pop up. How much risk, either in a media rights deal, membership agreement, scheduling philosophy, etc, are you willing to take, knowing that your campus could look very different in six years? If you've been betting on yourself over the last decade, and believe that you could be a larger and more prestigious school in the near future, maybe you'd want to look at other potential media partners, for example. Maybe you'd want your member schools to spend more money or schedule more aggressively.
Two different ADs told me they honestly believe it's possible for the WAC to become a conference that earns multiple bids to the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, but that requires "all of us to get better."
Is that possible? Maybe. But nobody should expect that to happen without a few bumps in the road
It's worth pointing out that because of COVID, the league ADs haven't met in person since January. Most of the league's presidents have not had extensive face-time with each other either. All of this means that substantial change is happening without the level of interpersonal trust that comes from just knowing people for a while. All of us know that Zoom has some limitations.
So I think it's reasonable to expect that sometimes, leaders might disagree or get on each other's nerves, or talk past each other. That happens to any league going through a substantial recalibration, so you'd especially expect that to happen on the heels of a massively disruptive pandemic.
I get the argument for optimism. The defending FCS national champion is in this league. About half of the league sports teams capable of grabbing an NCAA Tournament spot. The league has an identity, an attractive geographic footprint, and real momentum on it's side.
But how well they can execute on that potential depends on leadership, both at the local level, and the conference level. Nailing this next commissioner hire will be critical, as will finding ways to keep all members schools on the same proverbial page.
Getting the league's membership situation stabilized was a major accomplishment, and one that Hurd should be praised for. But in the long run, that might turn out to be the easy part.
Getting all of those new schools, new students, new markets and new ideas to work together in order to achieve new heights? Actually putting the dang thing together and making it work?
That might be the real tough challenge.
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