Looking back at the WAC as league prepares for final game

By Jerry Hinnen | Staff Writer
Boise State's two Fiesta Bowl wins were feathers in the WAC's cap -- but even they couldn't save it. (US Presswire)

It's not surprising -- it is the complete polar opposite of surprising -- that in a week in which Alabama plays Georgia for a spot in the BCS Championship Game, the Big Ten and Pac-12 send their representatives to the Rose Bowl, and Kansas State goes for a Big 12 title, no one is talking about hopeless New Mexico State traveling to take on 3-8 FBS newcomer Texas State.

But the Aggies' matchup with the Bobcats in San Marcos, Texas, is one for the history books all the same, the final conference football game in the 60-year run of the Western Athletic Conference. After Saturday, the WAC will have finished its season and said goodbye to all seven of its football-playing members: Utah State and San Jose State are off to the Mountain West, Louisiana Tech and UT-San Antonio to Conference USA, Texas State to the Sun Belt and orphaned NMSU and Idaho to the wandered desert of independence (for now).

If the WAC's final Saturday on the gridiron seems like something less than a blaze of glory, though, it's occasion enough to remember that few -- if any -- of the FBS' lower-profile leagues have had anything like its influence on college football. Decades before #MACtion was even a gleam in Twitter's eye, the pinball scores put up by teams like San Diego State, Hawaii, Air Force and especially high-flying BYU made the WAC the go-to shorthand for a college football shootout -- all before Fresno State, Boise State or Nevada even arrived on the scene.

The offensive fireworks weren't just on the team level, either. The league has been home to superstars like Marshall Faulk, Colt Brennan, Dee Dowis*, LaDainian Tomlinson (during TCU's brief spell in the conference), Colin Kaepernick, David Carr, Ian Johnson, and a whole host of legendary BYU quarterbacks: Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer. And that's the short list.

The WAC's offensive presence has been felt in ways that aren't simply measured in yards and points, too. The Air Raid system that made Mike Leach a star and has buoyed the careers of coaches like Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen got its start with LaVell Edwards in BYU's WAC days; Boise has sent its last two offensive coordinators (and its system) to BCS megaliths Texas and Florida; the pistol offense created by Chris Ault at Nevada now has elements in dozens of playbooks across the country; both of Nick Saban's most recent offensive coordinator hires at Alabama were veterans of Pat Hill's program at Fresno State. For decades, if you've been a college football program looking for offensive innovation and success, you've probably looked at the WAC.

The conference's offensive reputation shouldn't obscure the fact, though, that the WAC also enjoyed an impressive level of success in the win column. Even the youngest college football fans can remember Boise State's two BCS bowl victories and Hawaii's undefeated 2007 run to the Sugar Bowl, but back in 1984 the WAC claimed a consensus national championship when BYU finished 13-0 with a win over Michigan in the Holiday Bowl -- the only AP championship not belonging to a current BCS school since Army's in 1945. And even in this seven-team, off-the-radar final season, league champion Utah State was a handful of missed field goals against Wisconsin and BYU from earning yet another BCS berth.

Add it all up, and between the success, the longetivity, and the offensive influence you have a compelling argument that no non-BCS conference has had a greater impact on modern college football than the WAC. New Mexico State at Texas State isn't appointment viewing, but the six decades of football that preceded it mean attention must be paid all the same.

Here's a brief, video-friendly timeline of the WAC's history:

1962: The WAC forms out of remnants of the old Border and Skyline conferences with six charter members: Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Arizona and Arizona State leave for the then-Pac-8 in 1978, but not before Arizona State gives the WAC the inaugural Fiesta Bowl title in 1971, defeating Florida State 45-38.

1978: After seven years of sending its champion to the Fiesta Bowl and in the wake of the Arizona schools' departure, the WAC begins a new tie-in with San Diego's Holiday Bowl. The arrangement would last for 29 years and result in many of the league's most memorable moments, including BYU's famous McMahon-led comeback from 20 points down with less than three minutes to play to defeat SMU in the 1980 edition:

1984: Speaking of the Cougars and the Holiday Bowl, BYU's win over the Wolverines (the 6-5 Wolverines, admittedly) made them the only modern national champion to play a bowl game before New Year's Day. The game was BYU's 24th win in what would become a 25-game winning streak the following season.

1994: Only a day after hiring new commissioner Karl Benson, the WAC makes what would ultimately prove to be its fatal mistake, inviting six new schools (SMU, TCU, Rice, San Jose State, UNLV and Tulsa) to join what was already by then a 10-team league. By 1996, the WAC was officially Division I's first (and still only) 16-team conference. BYU and Wyoming would play the league's first football championship game that season. But travel costs, scheduling concerns, and other issues eventually resulted in eight of the 16 teams -- including league linchpins BYU, Air Force and Utah -- to splinter off into the Mountain West just three years after the conference expansion.

2006: Boise State joined the WAC in 2001 and quickly established itself as the league's resident heavyweight, ripping off a 31-1 record and four consecutive conference titles from 2002 through 2005. But the Broncos took things to another level in 2006, going undefeated and earning the WAC's first BCS berth (and just the second awarded to any non-BCS team). They made the most of it, defeating Big 12 champion Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime in one of the greatest games in college football history.

2007: Hawaii survives a series of close calls, beats Boise on the island, and comes back against Washington in the season finale for a 12-0 record and the WAC's second BCS berth in two years. Brennan becomes a Heisman finalist. But neither the league nor the Warriors will want much said about their Sugar Bowl appearance, a 41-10 demolition at the hands of Georgia.

2009: Kellen Moore and Boise make it three BCS berths in five seasons, defeating TCU 17-10 for their second Fiesta Bowl championship under Chris Petersen.

2010: With five schools lost to Conference USA over the previous decade, Boise deals the WAC's deathblow by announcing it will bolt for the Mountain West in 2011. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada soon follow, leaving the WAC at five football-playing schools. Texas State and UTSA are eventually added for 2012, but the handwriting is on the wall.

2012: New Mexico State and Texas State play final WAC football game.

*If the name's not familiar, Dowis was arguably Air Force's greatest option quarterback of all time, one who set a new record for career rushing yards by a college QB and became a 1989 Heisman finalist.

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