The day after the stunning news that the Western Athletic Conference is breaking in half, mixed emotions abounded from the beaches of Hawaii to the Rocky Mountains, from northern California to deep in the heart of Texas.
For the eight schools that are leaving the WAC, there is unbridled optimism. For the other eight, there is bitter disappointment and disbelief.But all 16 share one thing in common: the future is nebulous. Clearly, this is a watershed moment for the WAC, or what's left of it.
Both Utah athletic director Chris Hill and BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg reported that fans are happy about the arrangement that has their schools aligned with Air Force, Colorado State, New Mexico, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Diego State and Wyoming, beginning in the fall of 1999.
"The reaction from fans here has been uniformly positive," Fehlberg said. "I haven't heard a single negative response." He added that the night of the announcement, as he ventured around town, total strangers came up to him "out of the blue" to express their support of the move.
In Laramie, the mood is similar. "It's been phenomenal around here," said Wyoming athletic director Lee Moon. "It's overwhelming. Our fans are excited for the opportunity to play Colorado State, Utah, Air Force and BYU again. This move is what needed to be done. The leader of these schools needed to take a bold step and be visionary. Sixteen was not the answer."
The eight schools that forged the breakup face the daunting task of establishing a new conference. Moon said each school is expected contribute $100,000 in start-up costs. But questions about where the headquarters of this new entity will be located and who the commissioner will be remain unanswered. And what about the fact the door was left open for a ninth team to gain admittance into the new conference? The presidents and athletic directors are keeping mum for now on that issue as well.
But plenty is going on behind the scenes. Suddenly, there is a strong interest in this new conference. Now that BYU, Utah and the other six schools have unloaded their excess baggage, they apparently are a hot commodity. According to sources within the one athletic department, television networks and bowls have called like crazy, inquiring about possible relationships.
While it's obvious that the WAC's Superconference Experiment is dead, is this yet-unnamed conference a done deal? Word out of Dallas is that the Big 12, like the WAC, may also collapse, which could change everything for everybody. Could BYU or Utah or one of the other schools pull out of the proposed alliance and go in a different direction?
Fehlberg said while he likes BYU's position in the new conference, he's not ruling anything out. "BYU will always ensure that it does what is in BYU's best interest," he said. "If there were a better alternative, we'd take it."
For now, though, it appears unlikely that BYU would be involved in any scenario involving other conferences. The trend in college sports today is downsizing, not adding new schools. The WAC is a textbook example of that.
"We're very pleased with the direction our athletic department is going," said BYU President Merrill J. Bateman. "We needed a structure to enhance and maintain our rivalries and establish geographic confinement to contain our travel costs. We'll be better off and able to increase our revenues in this structure."
Hill said Utah will always be aware of its options, but the school is busy moving forward to create a new league. "Our plan is to move ahead with that," Hill said. "It's not appropriate to think about what's going on in other leagues right now."
Meanwhile, for the eight schools that are being left behind - Fresno State, Hawaii, Rice, San Jose State, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian, Texas-El Paso and Tulsa - well, nobody knows exactly what to think. Fans, such as the ones flooding the offices of the Frog Club at TCU with phone calls, are groping for answers. And the fans aren't alone. So are the presidents, who are feeling betrayed.
"I'm disappointed, I think, in the way this was handled," SMU athletic director Jim Copeland, a former AD at Utah, told the Dallas Morning News. "There weren't what I would consider common courtesies in the way this was handled. We're trying, at this point, to evaluate where we are. The thing that is obvious is, No. 1, we're still in the WAC."
"None of us had knowledge of this particular effort," Hawaii president Kenneth Mortimer told Honolulu papers. "We are in a situation now where we are trying to analyze where we are at this time."
This is the backdrop for President's Council meetings, which will be held next week in Monterey, Calif. There, the 16 presidents will convene to discuss - face-to-face - what has happened this past week. It could make for an awkward, and maybe even hostile, environment.
Yet there are rumors that some disaffected presidents may not show up. Other leaders, from Fresno State and Hawaii, may take advantage of the opportunity to lobby on behalf of their schools to become a possible ninth school invited to the new conference.
According to Bateman, on the first day of meetings, scheduled for Monday, the presidents will convene as a group to discuss the what is going to happen for the next year, until the breakup becomes official. After that, the presidents will divide into two separate groups to create begin the process of putting together their own game plans.
"There's a lot on our agendas," Bateman said. "We need to be getting ready for a new conference."