Brad Rock: Life stays unsettled for WAC commissioner

Published: Thursday, Oct. 27 2011 8:02 p.m. MDT

The changes come, or don't, but in one sense it hardly matters. Either way, they loom like a sickness in the land. Sometimes they claim a team (or two, or three) from the Western Athletic Conference. Other times the conference gets left to wait for the next plague.

"Sometimes," says WAC commissioner Karl Benson, "you feel helpless."

That's life in college football, where only a few conferences are safe, the rest left naked and vulnerable. This week's story lines include West Virginia moving to the Big 12, then put on hold, Louisville trying to crowd in at the last minute, Missouri moving to the Southeastern Conference, Boise State and Air Force to the Big East. But it's not just the big teams changing chairs. Oral Roberts announced it is moving from the Summit League to the Southland Conference.

Even as conferences keep upping the exit fees, teams keep leaving.

"It's gut-wrenching," Benson says.

This isn't a new feeling for Benson. In the 1990s he was commissioner when eight WAC teams split off to form the Mountain West. He recently lost Fresno State, Nevada, Hawaii and Boise State to the MWC.

One disconcerting thing about college football is that sometimes university presidents, athletics directors and even commissioners can get caught off guard. When Benson arrived at the Utah State-Louisiana Tech football game on Saturday, news was just breaking about a proposed 32-team super conference involving teams from the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and Big East. Benson only learned about it the previous afternoon from other commissioners.

What an alignment like that might mean to Benson is unclear. It could spell the end of the WAC or it could provide some safety for him and his teams, such as Utah State. But that's what the Big East thought when it added TCU, only to find the Horned Frogs had jilted it for a lovelier face. They veered to the Big 12 without so much as a scribbled apology.

Yet even the Big 12 is jumpy after losing Nebraska and Texas A&M and watching Missouri flirt with both the Big Ten and the Southeastern conferences. There was talk of BYU joining, but for now it appears the Big 12's eyes are on Louisville, West Virginia or both.

"The whole thing is amazing, the entire structure is percolating and bubbling, and one decision by the Big 12 will trigger some others," Benson says. He calls the WAC "obviously vulnerable."

It wasn't always this way. When the WAC was a solid and stable confederation, the commissioner's job was largely that of benevolent overseer. He visited the campuses, did PR work with the schools, lobbied for bowl games. Rarely did the picture change. They didn't get a fraction of the revenue the big schools did, but at least they knew their friends.

The WAC expanded to 16 teams in the 1990s but in 1998, Utah and BYU led the move to form the Mountain West. Benson was in the thick of the struggle. Now he's at it again, trying to keep enough football-playing schools to remain certified. Next year he looks to be down to seven teams, though the plan is to expand to nine. One possibility is to pick up the leftovers from other conferences.

Still, Benson is candid about the dilemma, saying in two to six months the positioning could be over "and hopefully the WAC won't have been cut." Yet almost every week reports arrive that could eviscerate his league.

"Today C-USA and the Mountain West want to stabilize their conferences," says Benson. "That's what I've been trying to do for 15 years."

Benson even acknowledges the possibility of conferences not having football. One idea would be to have the 80 or so of the biggest football programs create a football-only organization, separate from the NCAA. Then the NCAA could run all other sports. In that scenario, universities could go back to traditional geographical rivalries.

Benson says someday he wants to write a book that includes the last 18 years of WAC history. It should be a page-turner: suspense, intrigue, love, betrayal, dismemberment and near death. It could also be a story of struggle and redemption.

His biggest problem? He still doesn't have an ending.

email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster

Facebook: rockmonsterunplugged

ONLINE POLL:

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