Boise State had won the Fiesta Bowl after one of the most amazing endings in college football history, and the usually all-business administrator wanted to celebrate like a fan, long into the night.
Karl Benson was not going to bed, and not just because he is a BSU alumnus. He was just as thrilled and satisfied, perhaps more so, in his other pertinent role, that of Western Athletic Conference commissioner.
His league — near extinction after eight of its schools defected to form their own conference, and needing membership juggling and dogged determination to keep afloat — had just had its shining, vindicating moment.
“With all due respect to 1984 and Brigham Young’s national championship, Jan. 1, 2007, is clearly the most notable day in WAC history,” Benson said.
The forecast for 2007 was even more sunny, as the WAC generated a healthy preseason buzz thanks to two potential Bowl Championship Series crashers, Boise State and Hawaii, with their Heisman Trophy candidates, BSU running back Ian Johnson and UH quarterback Colt Brennan.
Three weeks into the season, however, and the WAC has learned how quickly the wave can weaken in college football. Hawaii’s worth has been questioned due to a suspect schedule, pleasant 2006 surprise San Jose State has been dreadful, Fresno State blew a big chance for an upset at Texas A&M and Boise State fell out of BCS contention by losing at Washington.
However, for the WAC, the most disappointing story was not on the field. Recently, Boise State president Bob Kustra publicly divulged his desire for the school to join the Mountain West Conference.
“They simply have not really sat down to make the decision it’s time (to expand),” Kustra said of the Mountain West. “Once they do, I would be shocked if we didn’t get one of the first calls, if not the first call, to join.”
That is the same Boise State that has been the WAC’s flagship school, a winner of five straight conference titles. A program that Benson called the most dominant in conference history, irking fans of Arizona State and BYU.
And that is the same Mountain West that was formed by the breakaway eight schools, ending a 16-team WAC experiment that never really got a chance to succeed. The split caused friction between the conferences that still exists.
“I don’t think you ever like to see those types of stories,” Benson said. “As we are in a period of stability with our membership, I was certainly hoping I would not be asked a question (about schools leaving).”
Dealing with departing schools is an issue Benson constantly addressed since 1998.
That year, not long after the WAC was offered a significant TV rights fees increase from ESPN, BYU, Utah, Colorado State, Wyoming, Air Force, New Mexico, Nevada-Las Vegas and San Diego State broke away to form the Mountain West. The defecting schools took the ESPN money with them.
Since then, the WAC has been forced to replace five other schools, but, despite the challenging geography of stretching from Louisiana to Hawaii, has found a durable alignment with its current nine members.
However, the spectre of the Mountain West expanding remains, and if the nine-team league wanted to increase to 12 and create a conference championship game, it could simply pluck the heart — Boise State, Hawaii and Fresno State — right out of the WAC.
In 1998, Fresno State, Hawaii and Texas-El Paso sought inclusion when the Mountain West was formed, but were declined. UTEP, the last WAC member remaining from ASU’s days in the league, departed for Conference USA in 2005.
“If the Mountain West wanted to put us out of business, they probably could have taken two of those three to become a 10-team league,” Benson said. “If the Mountain West took Fresno, Hawaii or UTEP, that would have been it.”
On the football field, the WAC — which has a 10-15 non-conference record this season — can claim superiority over the Mountain West. The leagues have split six games this season, but while a WAC team, Hawaii, is in the top 20, the MWC currently does not have a ranked school.
A schedule that includes two championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schools has been perceived to hurt the Warriors’ major-bowl chances. But they are on target to finish in the top 12 of the BCS if they stay unbeaten.
How fitting, then, that a school noted for its proximity to the ocean and beach could get the WAC’s wave rolling again.
“The results of the last two or three years have made it easier to accept (schools leaving),” Benson said. “I’m very proud that the WAC has remained as an entity, one with name recognition.”
This report includes information collected from other media sources.
• Darren McFadden: The Arkansas running back has been the best player in America through the first three weeks of the season, but his candidacy will be hurt if the Razorbacks fail to contend for the SEC West title.
• Andre Woodson: The Kentucky quarterback was superb (30 of 44 for 275 yards and four TDs) in the stunner of Louisville, but he will have to approach that kind of production against SEC defenses for his candidacy to gain any traction.
• Matt Ryan: The Boston College quarterback has been terrific during the Eagles’ 3-0 start, and with Army, Massachusetts and Bowling Green next on the schedule, there are ample opportunities for statistic padding.
• John David Booty: The Southern California QB has been his efficient self, but with this running game and defense, Heisman voters might start wondering if the Trojans could win 10 games with Will Ferrell taking the snaps.
If Tim Tebow keeps playing like he did against Tennessee last week, the bandwagon for the Florida quarterback is bound to collapse from all the weight. One play typified the unique challenge that Tebow presents opposing defenses:
From the shotgun, Tebow caught the snap and leaned forward, as if to run. With the linebackers and a safety sucked in, he uprighted himself and fired a perfect strike to receiver Cornelius Ingram for a 20-yard touchdown.
“When that safety starts getting within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, you need to take some shots down the field,” offensive coordinator Dan Mullen said. “The fact that our wide receivers are making spectacular plays down the field allows us to keep doing that.”
The latest talking point out of Notre Dame is that the lack of talent in Tyrone Willingham’s final recruiting classes is bearing bad fruit, as the Fighting Irish lack the manpower in the junior and senior classes to compete.
Even if that is true, bad recruits — especially what Notre Dame considers bad recruits — should move the ball on occasion. The Irish have not, as they do not have an offensive touchdown and rank last in the nation in scoring, total yardage and rushing yardage.
With the next four opponents a combined 14-1, it could get worse for coach Charlie Weis’ team before it gets better.
“I didn’t turn into a crummy coach overnight, my staff didn’t turn crummy overnight, and the players didn’t turn crummy overnight,” Weis said. “There’s a whole bunch of problems. We’ll be judged from where we go from here.”
Three and out
• It is long past time to seriously question if Mike Stoops can get it done at Arizona. In his fourth season in Tucson, Stoops has 13 victories and has yet to reach double digits against bowl subdivision schools (nine wins).
• Some are marveling at a Kansas offense that is averaging 53 points and 532 yards a game. The Jayhawks have played Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana and Toledo. Wake me when the junior-varsity portion of the schedule is over.
• No matter how bad things get for your team, it could be worse. You could be a Duke fan. The Blue Devils’ 22-game losing streak that ended last week was not even their longest in this decade — Duke lost 23 straight from 1999-2001.