How To Save The Western Athletic Conference

For those of you who pay close attention to college sports apart from the big conferences, you can skip the next paragraph.

The Western Athletic Conference (WAC, pronounced “whack”) is one of the oldest top (sub)division conference. More than one in five Football Bowl Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-A) schools have played in the WAC at one point during its existence. However, it’s historically been a launching bad to another conference. Most of the founding members bolted the conference at once to form the Mountain West Conference, and the MWC has been incorporating WAC schools since. The last round of realignment means the likely end to the venerable conference. They were having trouble getting back up to 8 football-playing teams before, and now they’re losing five of the seven members they have to the MWC, Conference USA, and even the lowly Sun Belt Conference (generally considered the weakest of the lot). The remaining two football schoolsare Idaho and New Mexico State, and the latter is well-positioned to go back to the Sun Belt from whence it came seven or so years ago. Idaho is typically a poor performer – a relatively small school living in Boise State’s shadow. Idaho’s existence as an FBS program hangs in the balance.

So with only Idaho and New Mexico State remaining as football programs, and Boise State, Seattle University and the University of Denver as non-FB schools (Boise plays football obviously, but their membership does not include football), how does the conference survive? It probably doesn’t. But there is one intriguing possibility that could actually leave the conference stronger and more stable than it has been in a long time. Not “stronger” in the sense of performance (all hope is probably lost there), but in the sense of having an identity rather than being a temporary home for schools from Louisiana to Hawaii. East of the Mississippi lies the Mid-American Conference, which provides a good blue-print as a generally unimpressive but nonetheless stable conference with only a few of its many (13, at the moment) members angling for something better.

The first step to the plan is to start approaching a couple of state governors. This might be best left to Butch Otter, the governor of Idaho. Approach the governors of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Those three states are relevant because they have no representation in the FBS division. Montana, Montana State, and North Dakota are or will soon be in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly Division I-AA) Big Sky Conference. South Dakota, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State are in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (and the Summit League for other sports).

Montana and Montana State were approached about joining the WAC last year and declined to do so. One of the main reasons behind their decision was the perceived instability of the WAC. The other was uncertainty about rising to the level of the competition and fear of ending up where Idaho (a former Big Sky power) did, as well we the required initial investment for Montana State to meet the WAC’s standards. The arguments in favor of making the jump were financial (the FCS playoffs are expensive and being in the FCS limits income from payout games where they play the Washington Generals to a powerhouse school), logistical (FCS playoffs add weeks to the schedule and scheduling out-of-conference games at home can be tough), and most important prestige: they want to be associated with the likes of Idaho and (likely departing WAC member) Utah State rather than Eastern Washington and Weber State. Almost all of the reasons for making the transition still hold true (scheduling is less of an issue now due to Big Sky expansion), and most of the reasons against are mitigated under my plan.

The Dakota schools were never approached. They only recently made the transition from Division II, though they have succeeded in FCS (North Dakota State is the reigning champion). Their attendance makes them less attractive than they otherwise would be. But as institutions that Montana and Montana State would want to be associated with, they’re a better pick than some of the schools that are leaving. This represents a unique opportunity for the Dakota schools to make the jump to the highest subdivision without having to do the sorts of things a school has to do to make the transition. They’d be on the hook for the extra scholarships (FBS has 22 more scholarships than FCS), the Title IX compliance (adding football scholarships means adding something to women’s sports as well), and sponsoring a couple more sports, but they can probably get by without the customary stadium upgrades and such. It would require some investment, but it is an opportunity that will not come around again.

If you can bring along the two Montana schools and four Dakota schools, with Idaho, Seattle, and Denver, that makes seven football programs and ten total programs in six almost-contiguous states. That’s a very healthy conference core, which the WAC has lacked since 1996. From there you try to get New Mexico State to stick around. Due to the nature of the new conference – one of state flagship and land-grant universities – with which it fits, they might be willing to do it over the Sun Belt (which, in addition to being a weak conference, has a number of colleges of less-than-stellar reputations that are second or third tier in their own states). So you have either 7/10 or 8/11 teams (football/othersports) with seven or eight state flagships/land-grants, two urban privates, and Boise.

The last trip involves going to California. Two schools that were on the conference’s radar before are UC-Davis and Cal Poly. Both ultimately declined, in part because they had an invitation to the Big Sky Conference, which was good enough, and because they didn’t want to leave the Big West for non-football sports. The Big Sky Conference without Montana and Montana State is notably less prestigious (Montana or Montana State has won the conference title or a share of it for eighteen of the last twenty years). And the WAC could easily extend the two schools a football-only invitation (as football-playing counterparts to football-less Denver and Seattle). Once again, this is a unique opportunity for those two schools. And though they are not a good fit geographically, they are a good fit academically.

That would bring the conference to 9/10 or 10/11, full of like-minded schools that aren’t going anywhere. The village has been pillaged. The slate has been almost blanked. The conference can redefine itself as something other than the hodge-podge. The level of competition would probably be the weakest in the FBS. But that actually allows the schools to grow together without having to suffer the immediate poundings that caused Idaho such problems. But more than that, six of the schools come from states that have no college football allegiances. In Montana, they pre-empt SEC games to show Montana and Montana State play Northern This State and Eastern That. New Mexico State has all of their games televised. The Dakota schools probably could, too, in the Dakotas. This isn’t the same as having big markets, but the depth of the devotion will definitely outstrip that of most of the departing schools (Utah State has to compete with BYU for affections, Texas State with a plethora of power schools, and so on).

They would have to get waiver upon waiver from the NCAA to go forward with this, but I think under the circumstances they would have a pretty good chance of doing so. Nobody save the MWC has any reason to want the WAC dead. But more to the point, you have six senators and three governors to contend with representing three states with no representation in the FBS. They had already worked to accommodate the WAC’s troubles. This adds much more incentive to do so.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. I fundamentally don’t understand the need to keep dragging schools out of the FCS into the FBS. The gaps between the haves and the have-nots, which had been steadily shrinking for years, are almost certainly going to start growing again now that conference expansion has picked off the cream of the middle-class and TV deals have dramatically increased the financial clout of the power conferences. Wouldn’t it be better for the WAC if it became a stable power conference at the FCS level instead of continuing to “compete” with leagues that are, well, out of its league?

    Add to this the fact that the large majority of athletic departments don’t make money, and the need to keep competing at this level looks even more perverse.

    • I think that ultimately, the FCS should be eliminated. Bring up some of the CAA schools and a few from the Missouri Valley and Big Sky conferences as well as a couple of others (Appalachian State) and then merge the rest with Division II (sending the rest of the D-2 down to D-3. I don’t see much need to make distinctions between Eastern New Mexico and Western New Mexico.

      The problem with FCS is that it is the worst of most worlds. You don’t save all that much money and you lose potential revenue streams. With the exception of specific programs (like Montana), you get little or no more attention than if you were in Division II… but you have 30 more scholarships and a handful more sports you have to bankroll.

      The “big fish, little pond” thing is overrated. North Dakota State would have garnered more attention in the Idaho Potato Bowl than they did in the FCS national championship game (at least the Potato Bowl is a part of betting pools) and NDSU had to play more ignored and money-losing playoff games to get there. The MVC and CAA/A-10 have their niche, but the latter is hurting as well.

      I think a lot of the schools making the transition and/or starting up programs (Georgia State, South Alabama) shouldn’t be. But coming from a school that did have those things, and that plays in the top subdivision, it’s easy for me to say that they should give up. Some people think that there are BCS schools that should be giving it up. The programs lose money, but still provide enough other things that far more want to move up than back down.

      And also, I do think it’s different when you’re talking about parts of the country that don’t have any FBS representation. The people around here root for the Denver Broncos for football (some go with Seattle), but it’s not the same for college sports. The inclination to latch on to a team from another state doesn’t work as well. That’s why I think that each state (except those with a clear disinterest such as Alaska, Vermont, and Rhode Island) ought to have representation. I’m less enthusiastic about the Texas States.

      • This is interesting, although I’m still not sure how you solve the basic problem that putting Alabama and Idaho in the same division is kind of absurd. Basketball gets around this, to some extent, by having a 64-team tournament (or however many we’re up to at this point). That’s obviously a non-starter in football. I guess maybe you just live with it?

        Of course, my preferred varieties of change (things like multi-year scholarships, increased payment for student-athletes, etc) would basically bankrupt all but the top 50 or so schools anyway, so I’m not terribly sympathetic in the first place.

        • Yeah, I think that you just live with it. I mean, UL-Monroe beat Alabama a few years back. Such things are rare, but I would submit that they are worth more than an FCS championship. James Madison beat VT and won the FCS championship in the same year and I suspect they will remember the former longer than the latter. (The fact that FCS teams can play Alabama is something that I do not believe should be, if you’re wondering why I don’t think that undermines my point.) It’s about having a different level of expectation. For all the talk about how schools outside of BCS conferences can’t win football championships, none have in the BCS era.

  2. I like this scenerio. You should be the new WAC Commissioner! I have been following this issue because I have a kid at U of Idaho. I really like your point about the fact that the WAC should go after schools that are “going nowhere”. Also that the FCS should be done away with. If the NCAA would give some concessions to schools that join the WAC regarding transitioning slowly into improving facilities and scholarships then I think it would work.

    • Thanks! It’s an odd sort of thing, but I think having a conference (except Idaho and NMSU) transition together would be more healthy than how the Sun Belt did it, with one or two team drips.

      One of the advantages of a couple-year transitional period where they are likely not participating in bowl games or a playoff is that they would be a conference unto themselves and become a more tightly knit unit. Like the MAC, I think it’s a conference people would want to be a part of. Not that they would turn down an invitation to the MWC, but that the league won’t be a scramble to get the next big invite.

  3. As a Cal Poly alumnus, I feel like the last thing our school needs is a bigger, more prominent football presence.

  4. Rather than try to get 6 schools to increase their athletics, NMSU and Idaho should look to return to a level of football play that they may actually win a game or more. As perennial Bottom 10 FBS teams, these two really need to drop to FCS play. NMSU could join the Southland, and Idaho the Big Sky.

    Of the 4 Dakotas, only NDSU could marginally justify the move. USD, UND and SDSU don’t have stadium capacity to move up to FBS. Further, the Summit League is consolidating along the I-29 corridor, and is likely to remain very eastern Dakota and east looking.

    WAC football is done. If want to save the BB auto bid, WAC should look hard at snapping up all available Great West schools.

    • Realist, I think you have to look at the schools individually. The same argument you make for UTSA and UNCC could have been made for any number of schools, including South Florida, Boise State, and Troy, all of whom have (in my view and theirs) benefited from the transition. I think UTSA and Old Dominion have solid cases. I think it’s weaker for Charlotte and extremely weak for Georgia State. But the actual list of programs that have made the transition and regret it is few. I can’t think of any. The alternative, after all, is the FCS. (Cntd)

    • For your information NMSU has never been anything lower than a D1/FBS program over the last 100 years. I don’t know where you get your information but saying NMSU should drop back down a level is totally wrong.

  5. Stadium size isn’t a problem anymore. Idaho’s is below the former minimum. The geographic advantages of the Summit are outstripped by the lack of peer institutions. I think the four would be better suited in a conference with the Montana and Idaho schools in the FCS if Idaho makes the drop and I hope they split off and form their own conference (though they probably won’t because of costs and they are in a subdivision with so few revenue streams).

    It simply isn’t always better to be the big fish in a small pond. There is a reason Idaho doesn’t want to go back. The FCS is the worst of worlds with many of the costs of FBS but fewer revenue streams (bodybag games don’t pay as much, playoffs lose money, 3/4 of scholarship costs).

    I don’t think that all of the FCS teams should make the but I think most of those that don’t should be looking at D2. I look at the proposed WAC members differently because as state flagships and landgrants, they have a stronger claim to the highest level than Texas State or a Eastern Michigan.

  6. I don’t see 120 or 130 or 160 as a problem. They sort themselves out. I’d like to see a few drfop down for various reasons, but I think it’s a proclamation that should be resisted. I mean, I don’t want *my* alma mater to “give it up” as some suggest when it has struggled (though it is doing well enough at the moment). The only surefire case for me is EMU, and even then, I would be just as okay if they could just get their institutional act together and get their fans even marinally interested.

    (Sorry for the awkward commenting. I’m still learning Android)

  7. You don’t need the California schools. They will only add instability and long trips. They are also very far behind in facilities. Idaho, NMSU, Seattle, and Denver should instead invite North Dakota, NDSU, South Dakota, SDSU, Montana, MSU, Portland State, and (to replace Boise State) non-football Utah Valley.

    This would give the conference a footprint across the Northwest Quarter of the country with only NMSU as an outlier due to a lack of options. What this does is pull the top three four state universities out of the Big Sky and leave it with a bunch of smaller regional schools that belong together and can’t move up.

    The Big Sky would be left with Sacramento State, Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Weber State, Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, and the two California football-only members. They can add Division II schools Central Washington and Colorado State Pueblo to rebuild their numbers.

    You would end up with 9 schools for football, all big state universities, under my plan, along with Seattle, Denver, and Utah Valley for basketball and minor sports. Boise State never lifted a finger to save the WAC and immediately started trying to bribe their way into the Big West with help from San Diego State.

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