It didn't take Bernie Machen long to see the problems connected with the unwieldly 16-team Western Athletic Conference.
Not long after taking over as the University of Utah president in January, Machen - with input from athletic director Chris Hill, basketball coach Rick Majerus and others - began looking seriously at the largest conference in America.Machen said he had "questions without answers" and began quizzing his fellow WAC presidents. "They had the same questions," he said.
"Where are we going?" and "How does it all fit together?" were a couple of Machen's main questions about the WAC.
"It just didn't add up to me . . . and it turns out a lot of others didn't understand it either," he said.
Machen and a couple of other presidents began talking about bolting from the WAC to form their own conference, and Tuesday afternoon the presidents dropped the bombshell.
"Once the eight of us had begun these discussions, we thought it was intellectually honest to make our discussions public," said Machen.
The new league wouldn't begin operations until the summer of 1999 because present WAC bylaws state a year's notice must be given by schools wishing to leave.
Machen didn't care to characterize himself as one of the "ringleaders" of the new league, but it's clear he was one of the driving forces behind the move.
He and fellow WAC presidents are scheduled to meet next week in Monterey, Calif., for their annual meeting. Machen said it was while he was preparing for the meetings a month ago that he began "reviewing the WAC situation with people here."
One of those people was Hill, who was becoming frustrated being dragged down by the weaker members of the large conference after building one of the WAC's strongest athletic programs. Utah ended up having to subsidize the weaker members by sharing revenue from its NCAA basketball and bowl game successes.
"Bernie was very involved and acted in a very positive way," said Hill. "It's exciting for us to get some order and better rivalries. It looks bright for the future."
Another was Majerus, who has always been a vocal critic of the 16-team WAC.
"I knew it was coming," Majerus told KUTV Tuesday night. "I'm in total agreement with it and think it will only be terrific, particularly for football and basketball. I think everybody is excited about this."
Some folks have wondered if Utah should have held out and tried to join a bigger conference such as the Pac-10 or Big 12 rather than return to what is basically the old WAC. While Hill didn't rule out such a move for the future, he said Utah was concerned more about the present.
"We have to do what's best for us now," he said.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson held a conference call Tuesday afternoon and was asked more than once how solid the new arrangement is and about the possibility of the eight presidents from the ousted schools convincing the others to change their minds.
When asked about such a possibility, Machen replied firmly, "Not me."