When half the schools in the WAC announced they were seceding to form a new league Tuesday afternoon, no one was more surprised than the eight conference members who weren't invited to come along.
The eight-school exodus left the snubbed as stunned as anyone."Right now we're kind of in a state of shock," said Tulsa athletic director Judy Mac-Leod. "We're trying to regroup and see where everybody is at."
What is known is that Tulsa, UTEP, TCU, SMU, Rice, San Jose State, Fresno State and Hawaii are still part of the official WAC. And it wasn't until a joint statement was released to the media on Tuesday that they learned they were being left behind by the supersize league's eight other schools.
For various reasons - none bigger than finances - BYU, Utah, Air Force, Colorado State, Wyoming, San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV decided to form a new league resembling the old, smaller WAC. The unnamed conference won't officially form until the beginning of July 1999.
A "breakdown of traditional rivalries" - due to the expansion of the league to 16 schools in 1996 - was among the reasons listed for the schools' decision to part from the WAC. But sustaining rivalries obviously wasn't the only motive. That's evident because the defectors didn't invite two universities - UTEP and Hawaii - who have formed longstanding rivalries within the WAC for a combined 50 years.
UTEP joined the WAC in 1967 to become the conference's first expansion school. The El Paso institution's addition came five years after BYU, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming (as well as Arizona and Arizona State) merged in 1962.
After 31 years, UTEP officials are disappointed to part ways, especially because they didn't see it coming.
"It was one of surprise," said UTEP sports information director Gary Richter of the school's reaction, "because this is something that we knew nothing about."
Richter said UTEP is puzzled why it wasn't invited to join the new league. It could be because the Miners' program has been on a decline lately, partially due to a minimal amount of funds in the athletic department and also because of NCAA probations.
"I really don't know why UTEP wasn't approached," Richter said. "That's something you would have to ask them. . . . There are a lot of things we don't know."
Three-thousand-and-some-odd miles to the west another school experienced similar feelings Tuesday. The University of Hawaii, a member of the WAC since 1979, was also caught off guard with the announcement and with its exclusion.
"None of us had any knowledge of this particular effort," said Hawaii president Kenneth Mortimer. "We are in a situation now where we are trying to analyze where we are at this time."
Distance - which makes travel both very expensive and time-consuming - is Hawaii's worst enemy.
The snubbing of Fresno State might be the biggest surprise. Even WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who wasn't informed of the events until he was awoken during a nap Tuesday afternoon, admitted a bit of disbelief that the Bulldogs hadn't been invited.
"Obviously this has to be a shocker for Fresno State for what they thought they were buying into," Benson said. "In 1991 they were looked at as being a very valuable member of the WAC. I was surprised that Fresno would not be in that group."
Fresno's football program experienced success immediately after it joined the then-10-school-WAC in 1992, but it has struggled recently. The Bulldogs basketball program has been under heavy scrutiny by the NCAA since Jerry Tarkanian took over in 1995.
Because of meetings, Fresno State president John D. Welty was unable to comment on the situation.
When asked if he had heard that schools were considering breaking away from the WAC, Benson responded with a simple, "No."
The presidents of the WAC schools will be meeting in Monterey, Calif., this weekend to discuss the future of the league. Benson said one option for the WAC is expansion. He specifically named five schools - Utah State, Boise State, New Mexico State, Nevada-Reno and North Texas - as possible newcomers to the now Texas- and Pacific-Coast-heavy league.
"I can certainly hope that a plan can be developed for the Western Athletic Conference to survive," he said.
Most officials from the remaining WAC schools didn't want to speculate about the conference's future.
"Our number one priority right now is to stabilize," said SMU athletic director Jim Copeland.
Copeland hinted that he thought the eight departing schools had betrayed the others.
"I'm disappointed, I think, in the way this was handled," he said. "There weren't what I would consider common courtesies in the way this was handled."
Rice president Malcolm Gillis said that despite challenges his school has tried to help the WAC function.
"Rice spent considerable effort trying to make it work in spite of the problems posed by geography and other difficulties," Gillis said, adding that he was surprised by the breakup.
UTEP president Diana Natalicio told the El Paso Times she didn't know what her school would do but added that an alliance of the remaining eight WAC schools "is a fairly difficult conference to envision."