MOSCOW, Idaho – Before Fresno State and Nevada rocked the Western Athletic Conference by departing for the Mountain West, Idaho athletic director Rob Spear suspected something momentous was in the offing.
The WAC had been in negotiations with BYU for weeks to join the conference in all sports but football. Losing a coveted member like the Cougars, Spear insisted, wasn’t going to sit well with Mountain West officials.
“You just knew that the Mountain West wasn’t going to roll over here,” he said Thursday, the day after FSU and Nevada announced they were joining the MWC and leaving the WAC in disarray.
Spear confirmed UI is firmly committed to sticking with the WAC and trying “to raise our program to the next level.” He and leaders from the five remaining WAC schools held a phone meeting Thursday morning to reinforce their commitment to the conference.
The WAC has lost its three strongest football schools this summer, all to the MWC. Boise State will join the Mountain West next year, while UNR and FSU are required to stay until 2012.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who labeled the latest and sudden defections as “selfish actions,” said a week ago the WAC schools hashed out a binding agreement, in which any school that left within two years would have to pay $5 million within 60 days of leaving.
Seven schools signed the agreement – with the exception of Nevada.
Benson said “a reporting error” was discovered in the Wolf Pack’s case, but he received an oral agreement from UNR on Saturday that the WAC’s legal counsel considers binding. Legal action is a possibility if Nevada refuses to pay, Benson said.
The $5 million exit agreement was Benson’s idea to the WAC’s board of directors.
“I wish at this time I would have made it $20 million,” he said.
Now that Nevada and Fresno State have left, the remaining WAC schools aren’t required to keep the agreement.
“I know that the other six WAC board members were under the belief that the action taken by the eight schools last Friday indicated a willingness and a desire and intent to move this forward knowing that a potential outcome would have included BYU,” Benson said. “The unfortunate part here is that there was solidarity and expressed solidarity and four days later there was a departure.”
Benson said the WAC is exploring potential suitors to fill the open slots. Cal Poly, Sacramento State and UC Davis were mentioned as possibilities, and Benson said all were possible targets. The same goes for Montana, Texas State and the University of Texas at San Antonio – all FCS (or Division I-AA) schools.
“Obviously, one of things we’d like to do is reach out to some FBS schools right now in other conferences,” Spear said.
He added that it’s not the conference’s initial preference to add an FCS school. Until next summer, when a moratorium is lifted, any non-FBS school must petition the NCAA to move up to the highest level and then go through a transition period.
Still, Montana would be an ideal addition – Benson said the Grizzlies have tremendous facilities and fans – but the school has declined to pursue a move in the past.
UM is going through an internal review, Benson said, and “when they’ve done it previously, the conclusion has been that FCS is in their best interest.”
Although there’s still hope BYU could join, the move is less likely with Fresno State and UNR gone. The Bulldogs and Wolf Pack – along with other WAC members – would have been ideal football scheduling partners for BYU if it had gone independent, as reports indicated earlier this week.
With the original plan in tatters after it came close to coming to fruition, Spear used a sports analogy to describe the last month.
“Look, it’s kind of like of wrestling match, where you’re on top and you almost have a pin and somebody does a reversal on you and they get two points and you lose the match,” he said. “It was disappointing to get that close to having something done that would have really solidified the WAC, but we’re going to move forward from here. Not look back and worry about could have happened. I’m just excited about what can happen.”
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