SALT LAKE CITY — I knew for sure the Western Athletic Conference was on its death march when I saw then-commissioner Karl Benson in the lobby of a Tucson hotel in March of 2011. He looked resigned when I asked how things were going.
"There just aren't enough teams out West," he sighed.
Benson almost always makes people feel good about a situation. But he seemed to have little optimism.
The WAC's run for daylight had come up short.
A few months later Benson left to take a similar post with the Sun Belt Conference. This week brought news that his successor, Jeff Hurd, had called off the 2013 football season for lack of interest. It wasn't apathy on his part, but rather the schools in the western U.S.
In cowboy terms, the WAC was becoming a ghost town.
There is plenty of blame as to why it all collapsed. But nothing had more to do with it than Utah and BYU, which sucker-punched the league not once, but twice. A few years from now, as people fondly recall the glory days of the WAC, they'll remember it was Cougars and Utes that both carried the league and buried it.
Hurd says the WAC might survive as a non-football conference, though even that seems doubtful. It just passed the 50-year milestone last month. But it's not a party if nobody sticks around for the cake cutting.
"It doesn't mean we've given up on the idea of football for the future," Hurd told the Associated Press, earlier this week, "but it's apparent we don't have enough members in 2013 to play football."
It's also apparent the league is as dead as Butch Cassidy. Even to survive on Olympic sports, it would have to add members. The WAC has already been rejected by several Big Sky schools.
While endangered conferences are a reality these days, that doesn't mean the WAC won't be mourned. It always had a maverick appeal. BYU won a national championship in football, despite lacking the traditional credentials. Boise State went to two BCS bowls as a member of the conference.
What can you say about a league that covered five time zones, from Hawaii to Louisiana?
At very least, you have to admit it was, well, out there.
Even after the conference remake in 1999, it kept some of its Old West appeal: Reno, Las Cruces and in its last throes, San Antonio and San Marcos. Boise State enhanced the league's image by taking down Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. It wasn't just beating the Sooners that resonated, but how the Broncos did it — by yippie-ki-yaying out of the chute.
Despite the football success, the league was at its Wild West best in basketball: New Mexico coach Norm Ellenberger, draping himself in turquoise and silver jewelry to match his personality; UTEP's Don Haskins, face flushed, rolling up a program in his fist; Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian gnawing on a towel; Jim Brandenburg railing on the refs and inciting the already restless Wyoming crowd.
Rick Majerus cracking food jokes at the Final Four and Kresimir Cosic loping stork-like down court were lasting images. Ticky Burden and Danny Ainge were leads in a vivid dream. LaVell Edwards?
He was a monument … who happened to enjoy passing opponents silly.
That was the WAC, a league of innovators and entertainers, as well as gunslingers and desperadoes.
In the days when basketball ruled, BYU and Utah, UTEP and New Mexico played thrilling games, to packed arenas. Yet there hasn't been an original member of the WAC in the conference since 1999, when charter members BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming formed the Mountain West, along with Air Force, Colorado State, San Diego State and UNLV.
That was too bad for the WAC. Previously the league had great road trips. Though Laramie wasn't exactly paradise, a Big 12 writer once noted that he'd never bad-mouth the WAC. Instead of Las Vegas, Honolulu and San Diego, he covered games in Ames, Stillwater and Lubbock.
But lately you had to ask: Who besides Karl Malone would want to spend the weekend in Rushton?
The main reason the WAC died, though, was because of Utah and BYU. If they had stayed in the conference instead of spearheading the formation of the Mountain West, the league likely would have survived. If Utah hadn't joined the Pac-12 and BYU gone independent, Fresno State and Nevada wouldn't have been invited to leave the WAC for the Mountain West.
So the teams that defined the conference for 37 years were the teams that brought it down. Which must have been tough for the WAC to accept. It's hard when longtime friends move, harder still when the neighborhood goes with them.