As the 2005 football season approaches it seems appropriate, if not interesting, to take a look back at the history of the Western Athletic Conference as well as a look forward.
The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) has a long history. Longer than most people realize. The conference was instituted on July 27, 1962. Charter members were Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. A conference of that size would not even be sanctioned given the NCAA rules of today.
On September 20, 1967 UTEP was accepted as the seventh member of the WAC with Colorado State following on September 26, 1968. The conference remained stable until December 27, 1976 when Arizona and Arizona State informed the conference that they would be accepting invitations to join the then Pacific 8 Conference.
To replace the Arizona schools, the WAC moved quickly to add San Diego State and Hawaii (1977). On June 30, 1978 the Arizona schools officially withdrew from the WAC. Then, on July 1, 1979, the Air Force Academy was added as a conference member.
The Western Athletic Conference stood pat for a period of about thirteen years until, on June 12, 1991, the Fresno State Bulldogs became the tenth member of the WAC. Which begs the question, why would the Bulldogs want back into a conference (WAC which became the Mountain West) that had so unceremoniously dumped them on. . . June 30, 1999?
But, I must digress. On April 21, 1994 the WAC invited UNLV, Rice, San Jose State, SMU, TCU, and Tulsa into the fold. Ah, June 30, 1999. The day that the WAC morphed into the Mountain West Conference minus the very schools that the conference had added only five years before. The new MWC also shunned the Fresno State Bulldogs and, inexplicably, UTEP (a member since 1967) at that time. The decimated WAC began rebuilding in July of 2000 when Nevada became a member followed by Boise State and Louisiana Tech in July of 2001. Utah State, New Mexico State, and Idaho came on board in 2004 with the announcement that Tulsa, UTEP, SMU, and Rice would be leaving.
Given the history of expansion and contraction it is no wonder that the MWC has little apparent appetite for expanding to twelve (a number that would allow a conference football championship game and put it in line to gain BCS status). Ironically, BCS status would likely not be an issue if the WAC had been able to hold onto the Arizona schools way back in the 70's.
So, as we embark on a new football season, what must the WAC do to rise again and possibly even challenge the Mountain West Conference as the top non-BCS conference in the country?
Besides the obvious answers like winning out of conference games against BCS opponents there are several steps that must be taken:
Strengthen the Present Members:
Every WAC team must build on the recent momentum generated by Boise State and Fresno State.
Boise State is embarking on some major building projects. Facilities are critical in the recruiting process and in revenue generation. The new indoor practice facility is a great start. The stadium must be expanded in order to generate more revenue, continue recruiting momentum, attract BCS opponents to Boise, and keep the coaching staff intact. With a population of roughly 600,000 (up from 432,000 in the year 2000) of enthusiastic Bronco fans the school could easily fill a much larger stadium. The Broncos must also realize even more success against out of conference opponents like Oregon State, Georgia, and other BCS schools.
Fresno State has had some notable wins against BCS teams (Wisconsin, Colorado, Kansas State, Oregon State, and Virginia). The Bulldogs need to continue that winning effort and draw much needed attention to the WAC. The metropolitan area boasts 500,000 potential Bulldog fans, enough to continue to build and fill its facilities.
Nevada has had some down years. The Tormey era was not known as the hallmark of Wolfpack football. With Chris Ault back at the reins the Pack could experience revitalization. The facilities at Reno are very good and the town is large enough to support a major program. The team just needs to win especially against their out of conference rivals.
Hawaii has everything it needs to continue being a strong port in the WAC. Honolulu is one of the largest cities in the conference with 876,000 residents as of the year 2000. June Jones has recruited Jerry Glanville to join the staff at the University of Hawaii. With NFL level coaches on staff the Warriors have the talent necessary to attract and coach a potentially dominant program. They must fill Aloha Stadium and… win the out of conference matchups as they have done recently against Michigan State and Alabama.
San Jose State is a key to the success of the WAC particularly as it sits in the midst of one of the largest metro areas in the nation. In fact, with its 7.5 million people it is the 37th largest metropolitan area in the world. Yet San Jose State football is barely a blip on the area's sports radar screen. There are over 30,000 students at San Jose State yet they ended the 2004 season averaging less 7,000 per game, the lowest in Division 1-A football. The area demographics suggest that filling their 31,000-seat stadium should not be a problem.
New head coach Dick Tomey may be the man to turn this program around. Tomey can boast a career record of 158-110-7 (.587) in 24 years as a head coach at Hawaii and Arizona. Tomey took the Arizona Wildcats to the Fiesta Bowl in 1993 with a record of 10-2 and the 12-1 Wildcats went to the 1998 Holiday Bowl. Inexplicably, after two subpar seasons (6-6, 5-6) in 1999 and 2000 respectively, Arizona chose to release Tomey. The Wildcat loss could be San Jose's and the WAC's gain.
Louisiana Tech is something of an enigma. The Bulldogs routinely schedule incredibly difficult out of conference opponents and occasionally win (Michigan State in 2003). In 2005, they are taking on Florida, Kansas, and North Texas. Given the recent turmoil in Gainesville and the less than stellar history of Kansas football, all of those games are winnable. But given the superior athletic talent at La. Tech., the Bulldogs could and should be more successful and a team to reckon with. This school can potentially add strength to the WAC even if they don't compete regularly at the top of the conference.
Welcome New Members:
Utah State is positioned near Salt Lake City, a metropolitan area that boasts 1.3 million residents. There are ample fans in the area to fill 30,257 seat Romney Stadium if USU can start a winning tradition. They will have to do much better than the 3-8 mark they posted in their last season in the Sun Belt Conference if they're to help put the WAC on the map of major college football.
When the Aggies move to the WAC they will be armed with new head coach Brent Guy. Guy comes to Logan from Arizona State and, as a member of Dirk Koetter's staff, had a stay in Boise as well. To open their first year in the WAC they host Nicholls State on Sept. 3 before visiting Utah on Sept. 10 and UNLV on Sept. 24. These games are all winnable and could start a winning tradition in Aggie land.
New Mexico State is another new member of the WAC this year. The Aggies come to the conference off of a respectable 6-5 record in the Sun Belt. Unfortunately, they had no wins over teams on their schedule that could have given their program a boost. The team suffered big losses to Arkansas, California, and UTEP (the 45-0 loss to UTEP was their worst defeat of the year).
To open this year, new head coach Hal Mumme will lead the Aggies against UTEP (home), Colorado, New Mexico, and California (home). This is a schedule that would put goose pimples on the arms of Boise State fans. The road games are winnable and having the Golden Bears at home would be a huge opportunity if the Aggies can pull off the upset. If NMSU can get it rolling, Aggie Stadium (capacity 30,343) should be rockin! And, with a city population of 75,000 and the metro area population pushing above 175,000 the Aggies have ample potential fans to make lots of noise for New Mexico State.
Mumme comes to Las Cruces with an overall record of 97-64-1. When he was the head coach at the University of Kentucky (a school not really known for its football) he took the Wildcats to two bowls in four years and helped develop quarterback Tim Couch into the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 1999. Anything close to that level of success at NMSU will mean the Aggies are helping advance the cause of the WAC (provided that Mumme doesn't bolt for greener pastures).
The Idaho Vandals were the final team added to the WAC in 2004. With a Kibbie Dome capacity of 16,000 and a population in the city of Moscow of about 22,000 combined with the 25,000 residents of Pullman, the Vandals are located in by far the most sparsely populated area in the WAC. Idaho is also forced to share fans with the Pac-10's Washington State Cougars; so the Vandals will depend upon a large number of alumni in the Treasure Valley to make the 300 mile trek to Moscow on game day. Filling the stadium and adding funds to the coffers will probably be a continuous challenge up north unless the Vandals can win early and often.
The Vandals posted back to back 3-9 records in the Sun Belt Conference in 2003 and 2004 after going 2-10 in 2002 and 1-10 in 2001. The Vandals did post a respectable 5-6 record in 2000, their last year in the Big West. In fact, the most successful recent seasons for Idaho were when the Vandals were in the Big West. They went 9-3 in 1998 and won the Humanitarian Bowl. In 1999 they were 7-4.
The Vandals open the season with three consecutive road games, Washington State, UNLV, and Washington. If they can recapture some of the magic of the late 90's, Idaho could add strength to the Western Athletic Conference. Their facilities and area demographics seem to suggest that they will struggle to make a splash on the national scene in Division 1-A. But Vandal pride could make Idaho a team to be reckoned with once again. And, in order for the WAC to be a serious threat to the Mountain West, Idaho will need to summon all of their pride and build the program back to a status of respectability.
For the WAC to rise again schools in areas with larger population bases need to be successful and put butts in seats. That means that Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Jose State, and Utah State simply must raise the bar. New coaches at New Mexico State and San Jose State who have serious Division 1-A experience could be major factors. Brent Guy at Utah State is an unproven commodity, but is a coach who knows how to win and rebuild a program.
The conference needs to dominate games with other non-BCS conferences like C*USA and the Mountain West. Big wins over significant players in the BCS conferences will add legitimacy to the conference. Bowl wins and competitive bowl performances will grab national attention.
The WAC of today probably has more potential to dominate the ranks of the non-BCS conferences than at any time since the 70's. Whether the schools and fans step up and make that happen is what keeps us going to the games and cheering on our teams.