LAS VEGAS — The changing Western Athletic Conference wants enough schools to have two divisions and an annual title game, and is looking to boost membership by selling programs on geographic convenience and the chance to be college football's next Boise State.
"The WAC has shown that when you join the WAC, teams get better," Commissioner Karl Benson said as the league previewed this year's football season in Las Vegas. "You take advantage of the WAC and you take advantage of the assets of the WAC. History has shown that."
Benson said that Boise State — which bolted for the Mountain West Conference this year after finishing last season 12-1 and ranked No. 10 in the country — wasn't any further ahead in its development as a program 10 years ago than current WAC teams are today.
"In some cases, you could probably argue that one or two of those schools are in a better position," Benson said.
Boise State, a nationwide darling since it went undefeated in 2006 and shocked Oklahoma with trick plays in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, isn't the only departure giving the WAC an unwanted facelift. Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada — the three teams picked by media and coaches to finish atop the WAC this year — are all moving to the Mountain West next year.
The league is adding five schools for next year, Seattle, Denver, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Texas-Arlington, bringing its total membership to 10, including seven schools that play football. The conference wants two more universities to bring the league to 12 members.
Benson said he logged plenty of frequent flier miles while recruiting universities during the first four months of this year, but interest during that time has been "tiny." He wouldn't say which schools the conference is targeting, but said there are Football Championship Subdivision schools in California that have indicated desires to move up to the WAC, a Football Bowl Subdivision conference, but can't because of economic problems with the state and internal university issues.
"And again, I think there was this uncertainty about where the WAC was headed and where we're going," Benson said. "What we have attempted now, I think successfully, is messaging that we are a stable conference and that we will be stable."
Fresno State coach Pat Hill, who's spent 19 of his 38 years in coaching within the WAC, said he thinks his team, Boise State, Nevada and others have grown tremendously because they have had the WAC as a platform. He hopes his program will grow even more next year with the Mountain West.
"I think the reputation of the WAC is a lot like the reputation of our football team. The WAC's a survivor, they're a fighter, they always survive," Hill said.
"It's just a part of evolution. Everybody's changing, everybody's moving," Hill said. "The WAC represents a conference that will fight."
Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said he was concerned the tumult within the conference would hurt recruiting last year, but it didn't, and he doesn't expect the changes to keep WAC teams from attracting players similar to those that they've attracted in the past.
"I don't know that they really care what conference they're in or who they're going to play," Dykes said. He said recruits at his school care more about location, environment and other factors.
Benson said he plans to stop going after schools for now and wait until January, when he'll begin pitching teams again to boost the league in size and stature. Part of that, he said, will be convincing teams that joining the WAC will be convenient in terms of coordinating travel and other logistics for sports besides football. Benson said splitting the conference into two divisions would, for example, let West Coast teams travel to Texas less frequently, perhaps once every other year instead of annually.
He said that starting next year, the WAC will be down to one automatic bid to a bowl game (the Humanitarian Bowl, which pits a WAC team against a Mid-American Conference team each December). But he expects his conference to perform well enough to justify at-large bids to other games.
"I've been privileged to be on the sidelines for three BCS games, and I'm expecting that I'm going to be there for another one before I retire," Benson said.