The rise and fall of the WAC: Lessons we learned from the 16-team conference experiment
Here's why the Western Athletic Conference, the first and only 16-team FBS league, failed 20 years ago
When it happened, Karl Benson was laying on a couch in a dark room recovering from emergency eye surgery.
That seemed like an absolutely fitting end to the largest Division I major-college conference ever. The vision for the 16-team Western Athletic Conference was blurred from the beginning.
Twenty years ago Saturday, the big, bloated, bad-ass WAC split up -- 16 teams extending four time zones from Honolulu to Houston. The league basically collapsed on itself because of travel, logistics, infighting and money. Isn't it always about money?
"All the sudden," said Benson, the WAC commissioner back then, "the pie wasn't big enough."
It was, figuratively, a Three Stooges-level pie fight to get to that point.
The league expanded in 1996 basically without athletic director input. Caught up in Southeastern Conference expansion, the Southwest Conference's demise and the formation of the Big 12, WAC presidents saw an opportunity to become college sports' Next Big Conference.
It quickly became The Biggest Conference, adding six schools in 1996 to a nice-tidy 10-team league that had existed competently and mostly west of the Rockies since 1962.
This turned out to be a brilliant flash of light across the sky that burned out much too quickly. In three years as a 16-team league, the whacky WAC got a team to the Final Four (Utah, 1998) and saw a football team finish No. 5 in the country (BYU, 1996). At the same time, the WAC burned more jet fuel in a year than some airlines.
Benson recalled an epic line from Ferd Lewis, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's veteran columnist: "The University of Hawaii can travel to Tokyo and eat rice in less time than it takes to go to Houston to play Rice."
And then, just like that, the 16-team WAC was gone as of May 26, 1998. Eight teams split off to form the Mountain West, a conference still in existence today. A reconstituted WAC continued, eventually producing the Boise State phenomenon of the early 2000s. But since 2013, the WAC has been a basketball-only conference.
What we're left with is a cautionary tale – and plenty of questions -- in this age of the super conference. Did the WAC experience teach us college athletics reached Peak Realignment -- the point at which any conference diminishes its strength and wealth by expanding beyond the current max membership of 14 (in football with the ACC, Big Ten, SEC)? Is that old WAC a working blueprint when 16-team leagues are considered today?
"Going back to that time frame, I don't think [16 teams] would work in 1996," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. "I don't think it would work in 2018."
Twenty years ago, Benson, now 66, had no answers for himself, his conference or the future. He was laying in that darkened room, unshaven, sporting an eye patch while nursing a detached retina when then-Colorado State president Al Yates called with the bad news: Half of his league was leaving to form the Mountain West.
"Shocked but not surprised," Benson said of that fateful day. "I was on my back instructed to stay in bed face up. I knew I had to get to the office and face the reality. I was worried about my staff. I showed up to the office there TV cameras posted out front. People forget this was big news. This was national news."
Here's a look back … and forward.
The rise and fall of the WAC
"Who in the F-word came up with this?"
Benson remembers those words from incoming Utah president Bernie Machen, who had just arrived at Utah after serving as Michigan's provost.
He walked into the equivalent of an advanced calculus class regarding college athletics. The 16-team WAC was split into two divisions. It included "quad" scheduling where groups of four teams would play part of a rotating schedule for a two-year period. Then the quads would be shuffled.
It was harder to write down than it was to explain.
"I was fresh out of the Big Ten, and I couldn't understand it," Machen said. "If I can't understand it -- as simple as I am -- there must be a problem."
Machen had to catch up quickly. Caught up in realignment mania, the 10 existing WAC presidents initially wanted to expand by two teams, moving to 12 to stage a football championship game. ESPN was willing to pay more for the television rights.
The WAC had started modestly as a six-team league in 1962 -- Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Wyoming New Mexico and Utah. In 1994, BYU, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah were still around along with Colorado State, Air Force, Fresno State, San Diego State, UTEP and Hawaii.
Back then, Thompson remembers interviewing for the commissioner's job eventually awarded to Benson. Thompson was asked which two schools he would add to get to 12. (The NCAA back then mandated at least 12 teams were needed to stage a championship game.)
"Then, they said, 'Let's go to 14,'" Thompson recalled. "When we went to the extreme, 16, I couldn't come up with 16. Literally at that point, I said, 'Hey, I'm not your guy. That doesn't make sense.'"
|Mountain Division, 1996-98||Pacific Division, 1996-98|
San Diego State
San Jose State
Instant credibility arrived. In the first expanded WAC game ever played, BYU beat No. 13 Texas A&M in Provo, 41-37. That same 1996 season, BYU became the first Division I-A team to win 14 games (14-1). It defeated Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, thinking the whole time it should have been in the new Bowl Alliance, the precursor to the Bowl Championship Series (BCS).
The outrage was such that Senate hearings were convened. Anti-trust threats were thrown around like nickels. When it was over, some of the most powerful figures in Washington, D.C. -- Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions among them -- had their say. The word "collusion" was even tossed around.
Any of that sound familiar?
"I'm sitting there under oath and my career is about ready to get short-circuited," Benson said.
Benson had just turned against the college football empire at the hearings. Also in attendance were SEC commissioner Roy Kramer and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, two high-powered figures themselves.
"Roy and Jim were waiting for me -- these guys were both good friends, good colleagues," Benson continued. "They said, 'You were pretty tough on us.'
"I said, 'Jim, if our roles had been reversed, and you were commissioner of the WAC today, you would have been a much bigger prick than I was. He looked at me and said, 'You know something, you're right. I would have been.'"
McConnell, a Republican Senator from Kentucky since 1985, put the situation in perspective during the meetings: "The basic message is, if David wants to slay Goliath, he better do it during the basketball season. College football has no place for Cinderella stories. College football has no room for the underdog."
As a result of those hearings, the WAC received better access to the major bowls. But that access was short-lived because the WAC was short-lived.
Slowly, BYU was on its way out as a power-conference program. Despite the Cotton Bowl win, BYU officials were bitterly disappointed. The Fiesta Bowl had ignored the Cougars for No. 20 Texas (an 8-4 team) to match against Penn State after the 1996 season.
"That was really the market resetting itself," Benson said. "The BYU snub demonstrated that they weren't a full-fledged member [of the power schools]."
When the BCS began in 1998, a demarcation line became clear between what was then the Power Six conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC) and everyone else.
"At the time, the WAC was above the line, there was no BCS. The WAC was at the table," Benson recalled. "I was becoming the commissioner of one of the power conferences."
The league's cultural and geographical diversity was both a blessing and curse. Air Force was a military academy. BYU was a religious flagship. There was the unique aloha culture of Hawaii. Wyoming was the true West. It was a league that had to account for the basketball antics and egos and failings of Rick Majerus (Utah), Billy Tubbs (TCU) and Dave Bliss (New Mexico).
The league eventually collapsed in on itself. In a 16-team WAC, it initially wasn't assured Colorado State and Wyoming would play each year. The rivals are 66 miles apart and have played 109 times going back to 1899. Thankfully, the rivalry continued uninterrupted.
BYU lost $200,000 on that Cotton Bowl trip. When it asked for reimbursement from the conference, the WAC refused.
One prominent NCAA executive told Benson, "I can't wait for you to explain how Rice University and San Jose State are going to be in the same league."
Feel free to make the academic comparisons.
In the spring of 1998, the main agenda item for the WAC spring meetings was to arrive at a permanent division lineup. About that time, Machen got together with his BYU counterpart, president Merrill Bateman.
They weren't going to wait for the spring meetings.
"I said, 'Merrill, why don't we blow it up?'" Machen recalled asking. "I wrote down on a piece of paper who we wanted [in the new league], and they all said yes."
That was the end of the WAC. Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming left to form the Mountain West.
"All we knew was that the model we had made absolutely no sense," Machen said of the WAC. "For the fans, we had no promise. … We didn't know what it meant at that point."
Machen and Bateman cobbled together six teams on that piece of paper. To get to eight, UNLV was invited because of its ties to the Las Vegas Bowl. San Diego State was invited because, well, it's in San Diego.
They had until noon the next day to agree.
Heads spun. Thompson was named the new Mountain West commissioner in October 1998. ESPN followed up with a seven-year, $48 million deal. It was still hard to explain why the WAC had expanded beyond belief.
"I think it was a vision of spreading to four time zones," Thompson said. "They thought, 'Boy, this is phenomenal.' … San Jose State [theoretically] brought the Bay Area, Oakland and San Francisco markets. You had some very major markets in the West. I'm thinking they though the Dallas Metroplex would have been [good].
"I don't think they really dove in on what the schedule models would look like. And by the way, you're in the same league, [but] you're not going to play [some teams] for eight years."
Where are they now?
|Mountain Division||Pacific Division|
Air Force: Mountain West
New Mexico: Mountain West
Colorado State: Mountain West
Rice: Conference USA
Fresno State: Mountain West
SMU: American Athletic
Hawaii: Mountain West
TCU: Big 12
San Diego State: Mountain West
Tulsa: American Athletic
San Jose State: Mountain West
UNLV: Mountain West
UTEP: Conference USA
Wyoming: Mountain West
A few years ago, Chuck Gerber and Mike Slive each quietly enjoyed a cigar near poolside at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa during the SEC spring meetings.
Their work was largely done for the moment. Gerber, a former ESPN executive and media rights consultant, had guided the SEC through expansion to 14 teams. Slive -- the former SEC commissioner who died last week -- had been in charge of the league's expansion through its most successful era.
Was his conference done expanding, Slive was asked? Was it wise or even possible to expand to 16 teams?
Slive considered the question thoughtfully. Without answering definitively, he pointed out that -- at 16 teams -- it's not really a conference. At that point, you're managing two eight-team conferences, he said.
That hinted at some of the turmoil the WAC could never overcome.
The SEC -- really, all of college football -- has stood pat. The supposed age of super conferences still awaits. Sixteen-team leagues will largely be the function of how much rightsholders will pay for them. Thus far, those rightsholders have made it clear they don't want to pay for 16.
2010: Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott's bold raid of six Big 12 teams, which would have grown the Pac-10 to 16 teams, was scotched at the last moment. Essentially, ESPN said it would pay the Big 12 the same amount for 10 teams (including Texas and Oklahoma) as it was paying for 12 after Nebraska and Colorado left.
2011: For a brief time, Conference USA and the Mountain West agreed to merge and become 22-team league. The champions of each division would have played a championship game and theoretically enhanced the league's shot at a BCS bid. The merger never got off the ground.
2013: Conference USA considered going to 16 teams by itself.
2016: The Big 12 considered expansion that included growing moving to 12, 14 or 16 teams.over the term of its current media rights deal. After an elaborate process, the league eventually shelved expansion -- for now.
Slive's thoughts on 16, then, were prescient. The concept of a series of 16-team leagues blanketing the country goes back to at least 1990. It is curious now that college athletics has basically stopped at 14-team leagues. (The ACC has 15 teams, including Notre Dame in basketball.)
There does seem to be a law of diminishing returns.
The moves are more calculated these days with the supply of desirable schools running out. The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012. TAMU got the SEC into Texas for the first time. Missouri delivered two top-30 markets in St. Louis and Kansas City. It is not insignificant that the SEC Network debuted in 2014 with extra programming provided by the two new additions.
The ACC -- about to add its own network -- may have trumped everyone by getting Notre Dame as a member in all major sports but football. If the Irish want to join a conference, it essentially has to be the ACC. Notre Dame is scheduled with the league through 2037.
"Delany's move to the East with Rutgers, that proved to be such a great move," said Machen, Florida's president from 2004-14. "As far as I know, the ACC is locked in with where they are. I have heard no complaining. The SEC guys are so happy with what Mike has done with that channel. There is no energy that I hear for taking anybody else in."
The next round of realignment -- if there is one -- won't occur until the middle of the next decade. That's when most of the current Power Five media rights deals expire.
Texas and Oklahoma are the most lucrative pieces out there -- if either is of a mind to leave the Big 12. Each will also be making at least $50 million in annual revenue by 2020. Those schools could add value to other leagues, but the best place for both to win championships remains the Big 12.
"If there were going to be changing coming, I would think Big 12 and Pac-12," Machen said.
The two conferences did discuss a scheduling alliance during the Big 12's expansion process. Nothing came of it.
As for the WAC, its legacy lives on. Four former WAC teams have made a total of nine appearances in BCS/New Year's Six bowls. (Utah, Boise, Hawaii, TCU).
What lessons were learned from the FBS's only 16-team league?
"It was only a three-year experiment," Benson said. "Would it have gotten better? People forget we doubled our television revenue. We had a very successful basketball tournament in Las Vegas.
"There was a side that never had a chance to materialize."
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