SALT LAKE CITY — Considering what he's been through, Karl Benson was looking good Monday. Tan, fit, nimble, alert.
Must be from years of dodging bullets.
The commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference opened his annual media day at the Salt Lake Airport Hilton in good spirits. Challenges? He has a few. On the bright side, his conference has a team ranked as high as second in the national preseason polls. On the down side, that same team (Boise State) is leaving once the curtain drops on the 2010 season.
You may think the embattled conference is now down for the count, and that could be true. But not necessarily. The WAC is in its 48th year of existence. It has outlasted numerous fashion fads, music trends, fitness crazes and Reaganomics. It has changed its look more times than Cher. Yet it's still kicking.
Benson isn't calling no mas yet.
"We've been down this path before and made it out every time," Benson said. "I feel very positive about our future."
Will the WAC of the future be an eight-team conference? Nine? Ten? Sixteen? No one knows, including Benson. But this much seems certain: Like Bond films and diet fads, it just keeps reinventing itself.
"I'm proud of the fact that we're standing here today and we're back to eight teams," Benson said. "People earlier on thought this was another crushing blow to the WAC. I feel so much more confident today than I did when we lost SMU, Rice, Tulsa and UTEP all in the same year. We lost four schools. This is simply one school that has had great success, and we'll replace Boise State. I've said all along when teams join the WAC they get better."
Devastating as the loss is, Benson has a point. Boise State joining the Mountain West Conference is the culmination of almost a decade of growth in the WAC. But it's not just Boise State that has improved in the WAC. Hawaii has been to a BCS bowl. Fresno State has been rated among the better non-BCS teams in the country. Nevada and Idaho played in bowl games this year.
Meanwhile, Boise State is two-for-two in BCS bowls.
A good rule of thumb is if you're upwardly mobile, join the WAC.
If you're unfamiliar with the WAC, there's actually reason for that. It has a habit of changing its look. In 1962, a group of sagebrush teams in the Far West decided to band together for mutual protection. Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming formed the original conference. Five years, later UTEP and Colorado State joined.
It was a wild and woolly conference in frontier towns.
Thing is, it worked. The little conference had a certain maverick appeal. Decades before Boise State and its blue turf ever joined the WAC, New Mexico was wearing turquoise home jerseys.
The first big shift came in 1978, when Arizona and ASU bolted to the Pac-10. That opened the way for San Diego State, Hawaii and Air Force to join the WAC in quick succession. Then the conference got serious about growth. In the first big wave of expansion mania, the WAC ballooned to 16 teams. The idea was to get in as many TV markets as it could. Never mind nobody in the Bay Area was watching San Jose State and nobody in Houston was watching Rice.
That incarnation only lasted a short time. In 1999, eight teams — including Utah and BYU — seceded to form the Mountain West; soon to follow was TCU. Rice, SMU, UTEP and Tulsa left for Conference USA in 2005, hence the aforementioned comment.
Cumbersome and far-flung as the 16-team WAC was, it did give fans a glimpse into the future. Rumors persist today that eventually there will only be four or five 16-team "superconferences. "
Maybe the enormo-WAC was ahead of its time.
"It imploded from within," said Benson, "not from outside. The college football world has looked at it and said, 'Those guys got a little something going.'
"People ask me if a 16-team league can work. Only if all 16 teams want it to work."
Through it all, the WAC persisted. It said goodbye to the Arizonas, Utah and BYU and a good-sized chunk of the Great Southwest. It added programs like Utah State, Nevada, Boise State, Idaho, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech.
It dodged and weaved like a bantamweight.
With Boise State leaving, the obvious questions linger. Will other conferences divide up the WAC? Can it survive without its marquee team?
Benson points out that nobody knew in the late '90s that Boise State would become a national player. In fact, Nevada was admitted before the Broncos.
"Is there another Boise State out there?" he said. "I think there is, within our own conference."
As John Wayne, a Western guy himself once said, "Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway."
All the WAC can say is, "Giddy-up!"
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