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.

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6 Responses to How To Save The Western Athletic Conference

  1. Peter says:

    What about persuading Seattle and Denver to take up football? With two additional football members the conference wouldn’t have to add quite as many new members to regain its strength. Seattle and Denver, two relatively obscure universities outside their immediate areas, would benefit from the prestige that major-league football brings.

  2. Abel Keogh says:

    I don’t see how moving to the WAC helps the Montana schools. Right now they’re the big boys, moving up–esp to the WAC–would make them bottom feeders for years to come. Boise State they are not. They’re better off in the Big Sky.

  3. Abel Keogh says:

    I don’t see how moving to the WAC helps the Montana schools. Right now they’re the big boys, moving up–esp to the WAC–would make them bottom feeders for years to come. Boise State they are not. They’re better off in the Big Sky.

  4. trumwill says:

    Peter, it’s tough for small private schools to do football. Denver actually had football, but dumped it and chosen hockey as its marquee sport. It’s doubtful that either would want to take it up again.

  5. trumwill says:


    The two schools that have most recently elevated from the Big Sky are Boise State and Idaho. Things obviously worked out for BSU, but even Idaho seems loathe to go back to being a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

    Montana would probably be one of the powers of the WAC, since it would mostly consist of other schools from the FCS.

    The FCS has actually become a raw deal for Montana in particular. I didn’t realize the extent of this until the last round of discussions with the WAC. The costs associated with the playoffs are considerable and they don’t get the income from bodybag games that other schools do. Nor do they get to host recognizable teams.

    It’s a closer call with Montana State, which might have more trouble competing. Though there again, they’d be competing against schools in the same boat. That’s an advantage, I think, of the WAC now versus the WAC last year. I thought it was a mistake last year. Right now I think it’s actually a good idea.

    The toughest sell is probably North Dakota State, which is drunk off its national championship. The fact that the Dakota schools only recently came up from Division II also makes it more likely that they will see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty.

    In any event, I think if they look at the MAC model, there’s a lot to like there. The MAC isn’t a very competitive conference with the others (excluding the Sun Belt), but it is its own little world. I see a WAC with profile state schools (albeit in smallpop states) in much the same manner. Which is why it’s important to try to get specific schools rather than just peel off whatever you can from the Big Sky. If the new WAC looks like a division from the Big Sky, it won’t work.

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