Posted by Jerry Hinnen
It is, by many accounts, all but a foregone conclusion: This Thursday, University of Texas-Arlington Mavericks will join the WAC in all sports but football. Their addition gives the venerable-but-reeling league 10 members total but still only seven for the 2012-13 football season.
UTA won't make it eight. The Mavericks gave up football in 1985 and, according to the Texas board of regents' agenda, "UT-Arlington’s invitation is not conditioned on starting a football program.” So why are we mentioning this development in this space rather than leaving it to our sister Eye on College Basketball blog?* Because UTA's addition nevertheless has the potential to dramatically reshape the reeling WAC's identity as a football conference -- either for the better, or the (even) worse.
A breakdown of both scenarios:
SCENARIO 1: Maybe the Mavericks haven't been interested in football before. But WAC membership might change the equation, thanks first to the bump in television money and exposure, and secondly to the natural rivalries UTA would enjoy with fellow FBS start-ups UT-San Antonio and Texas State. The Mercury-News's Jon Wilner reported this week that UTA "believes there’s money to be made in the FBS and in the WAC."
If the Mavericks do decide to take the plunge, Wilner outlines a possible dream future for the WAC. With three different guaranteed opponents in nearby Texas, Louisiana Tech (and its potentially wandering eyes) would be mollified; North Texas might look at the number of Texas brethen available in the WAC (not to mention the Bulldogs) and jump ship. The WAC would then be able to bring aboard another basketball-only member to reach 12 schools total, while still offering its nine football programs a clean eight-game round robin. And if commisioner Karl Benson could lure away a prominent FCS program like Montana, so much the better.
Unfortunately for the WAC, that scenario isn't nearly as likely as ...
SCENARIO 2: UTA might have better prospects for a hypothetical football program than before, but that doesn't mean the Mavericks are rushing into anything. "I don’t have any indication they have plans to add football," the commissioner of the Mavericks' former home, Tom Burnett of the Southland, told the San Antonio Express-News. "If they do decide that, it’s just a bonus for the WAC." The Express-News added that a second source indicated UTA football "has not been seriously discussed."
If that's the case, Benson may have some unhappy campers on his hands. Both Utah State and Louisiana Tech have made no secret of their desire for new football-playing members sooner rather than later, with the geographically outlying Bulldogs specifically asking for one closer to their Ruston home. If Benson can't convince the Mavericks to add football or find a Central Time Zone football school by the 2013 season -- and we're not sure if there's any realistic quality candidates out there, unless you count other Southland question marks like Sam Houston State -- Tech could decide to cut their losses and head for the Sun Belt. At that point, with just six football schools, the WAC would be on the edge of unraveling.
The good news for Benson is that Tech athletic director Bruce Van De Velde expressed hope this week for the WAC and downplayed the Sun Bell speculation, citing -- of all things -- the Sun Belt's academics. Like the Bulldog fan quoted in that Shreveport Times article, Van De Velde is likely holding out hope that the Big East's expansion dominoes could open a spot for Tech in Conference USA.
If the Big East looks somewhere besides UCF (or the other C-USA schools rumored to be under consideration), though, Van De Velde's hand may be forced; will his school really want to remain in a conference with weaker competition, less exposure and substantially greater travel costs?
Though it remains to be seen, we're skeptical. Thursday's UT-Arlington addition could be the start of the WAC's new Division I foothold ... or the final flailings of a league destined for the FBS history bin.
*Which you really ought to be reading as well, and don't just take our word for it.