In an college sports landscape where there is seemingly less honor and dignity by the day, Utah State appears to have stood strong by a commitment it made to schools in the same boat the Aggies were in.
The result, now, appears to be two of those shipmates shooting holes in the bottom and then abandoning ship in the only available lifeboat while the others stayed behind.
For as long as anyone can remember Utah State has been hoping to get an invitation to join a conference such as the Mountain West.
When one finally came, the Aggies said "No, thank you."
In a stunning development, Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes acknowledged the Mountain West initiated contact with USU about joining the conference.
"When the possibility of BYU leaving became known, MWC leadership contacted three WAC members inquiring about their interest in joining the MWC. Utah State was the first of these three contacts," Barnes, who did not return numerous phone calls and text messages Wednesday and Thursday, said in an open letter. "At the point in time when Utah State was contacted by the MWC we had a binding agreement with the WAC and were well positioned with nine members, which included BYU. We were simply committed to uphold our agreement with fellow WAC members. We respectfully declined MWC interest and believed all WAC members would remain committed to our agreement."
That show of loyalty — at least for now — has turned around to bite the Aggies in the backside.
It all started in June, shortly after Utah was invited to join the Pac-10 and BYU was left behind. The Cougars, unhappy with lackluster TV revenue from the MWC, began exploring their options. One of which was going independent in football.
The Mountain West, which did not want to lose its football cash cow, fought the move. BYU, with USU's help, had brokered an alliance of sorts with the WAC as a home for non-football sports to go along with a scheduling cooperation in football.
The eight WAC schools, seeking to prevent further defections after Boise State bailed out for the MWC as a replacement for Utah, then agreed on a $5 million buyout clause. Seven of those schools signed it, and Nevada — whose president, Milt Glick, was not on the conference call when it was discussed — pledged to do so the next day. Glick never actually got around to signing the paper, though.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson, speaking during an 80-minute-long teleconference Thursday morning, said both departing schools are legally on the hook for the full $5 million and the WAC expects payment in full within 60 days.
"I was disappointed by the selfish actions of two WAC schools, Fresno State and Nevada," Benson said. "I'm confident that the six remaining schools will show 100 percent commitment to the conference going forward. We will immediately assess targets for WAC expansion, including FCS and FBS schools."
Of course, the remaining WAC schools are also actively looking at their options.
Utah State, having now spurned the MWC, might want a second chance — after it pries the knives out of its spine.
Reached Thursday evening, a source at USU said the door to the MWC is "still ajar" but called the situation "very complex."
A second USU source agreed but said the MWC may no longer be willing to take USU.
"Never say never," the source said, "but certainly not likely in the short term."
The big questions now are where BYU will land and will Utah State — which appears to have been a leading proponent of helping the Cougars find a home after potentially leaving the MWC — have BYU in its corner in the next round.
"Recently, Utah State, under President Stan Albrecht's strong leadership, played a major role in exploring the possibility of bringing BYU into the WAC. As of Tuesday, BYU was on the verge of joining the WAC in all sports but football," Barnes said. "As part of the WAC's conversations with BYU, the current eight conference members agreed to remain together as a conference for at least five years. This stability was important to BYU, to other current members, and would have been critical as other expansion options were explored. WAC members signed a letter of commitment that included a $5M membership buyout."
Benson said as a result of Nevada and Fresno State breaking that agreement, the remaining six WAC schools are no longer bound by it. That could be a very loophole for Utah State as it now begins exploring the possibilities of remaining in the WAC or finding a new home with new (or old) partners.
"I do not take lightly the negative effect that recent changes in the composition of the WAC will have on us, but these are not insurmountable," Barnes said. "We have persevered through many changes in the athletic landscape and are prepared and better equipped to do so again."