In its tumultuous recent history, the Western Athletic Conference's turnstiles have spun faster than those at amusement parks during the summer.
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An astonishing 24 schools have left the NCAA's most volatile league since 1999, forcing officials to abandon football after this season and sending them scrambling to secure a future for the WAC in other sports.
With the national landscape still in flux and only New Mexico State, Seattle and Denver still members of the WAC beyond the 2012-13 school year, it raises the question whether the WAC's 50th basketball season could also be its final one. Both commissioner Jeff Hurd and athletic directors from the remaining schools acknowledge that's a possibility, yet they're hopeful they'll be able to reinvent the WAC anew via the addition of new member schools in time for the 2013-14 school year.
"I'm confident we'll reemerge as a non-football league," Hurd said. "We're working hard to maintain the WAC brand and conference. I'm not naive. I understand the obstacles that are there. But at the same time, I also look at this as a challenge that certainly has answers. I look forward to the time 3 to 5 years from now when I can look back on these days and know we built something pretty good."
For the WAC to retain its automatic bids to NCAA tournaments in all sports after this season, it must sponsor a minimum of six men's and six women's sports and have at least seven members that compete in Division I men's and women's basketball. Hurd would eventually like the WAC to become a 10- or 12-team conference, but his immediate goal is to satisfy those requirements.
Whereas other conferences have enjoyed the luxury of adding new schools out of opportunity, the WAC is expanding for the purpose of survival. Few schools will likely be willing to leave the security of their current conferences to come to an unstable WAC, so Hurd may have to seek out Division I independents and Divison II schools with an interest in moving up.
Neither Hurd nor any WAC athletic directors would confirm what schools they're negotiating with at this point, but it's not hard to determine some of the possibilities.
The most appealing option is likely trying to add any current Big Sky schools willing to make that jump. Beyond that, there's Great West members Utah Valley and Texas-Pan American or independents like Cal State Bakersfield. UC San Diego, Grand Canyon University and other Western schools hoping to move up to Division I could also garner interest from the league, but since the transition takes three or four years, that won't help the WAC survive in the short term.
"There are multiple iterations we're looking at," New Mexico State athletic director Dr. McKinley Boston said. "Like any new conference, it will take time to build new rivalries, but the WAC brand will sustain us. It's up to the new members to build and strengthen the brand. I'm thoroughly optimistic there will be a new WAC and the brand will eventually regain its strength."
It's sometimes hard to believe the WAC is in this position considering its proud history.
Born in 1962 thanks to the inspiration of charter members Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming, the WAC has produced a football national championship (BYU, 1984), seven baseball national titles and numerous memorable basketball seasons. In 1996, the league became the NCAA's first super conference with 16 members spanning from Hawaii to Oklahoma.
Those days are long gone, of course, but the current situation isn't entirely hopeless. The trio of New Mexico State, Denver and Seattle is actually a decent base to rebuild around in basketball assuming Hurd can keep the league afloat.
What Las Cruces lacks as a TV market New Mexico State makes up for with its tradition of basketball success. Not only have the Aggies made a Final Four and five Sweet 16s in their history, they're also on the rise again under coach Marvin Menzies with NCAA tournament appearances in two of the past three seasons and plenty of young talent in the program.
Denver also is improving in basketball thanks to impeccable facilities, a quality staff and a greater ability to recruit now that it has ditched the Sun Belt Conference for a league whose Western footprint should be a better fit. The Pioneers won 21 games last season and are well-positioned to contend with Utah State and New Mexico State in the WAC this winter.
Seattle hasn't enjoyed the recent success of its peers as it transitioned back to Division I, but the Redhawks may have the most longterm potential of the three. Between impressive basketball pedigree, a strong recruiting base in the Pacific Northwest and the allure of Key Arena, there's no reason Seattle shouldn't blossom if the WAC stabilizes and the Redhawks can compete for the NCAA tournament again.
"We refer to our basketball program as having no ceiling," Seattle athletic director Bill Hogan said. "We're committed to having an outstanding basketball program here at Seattle University. That's our legacy and that's our future. We already know New Mexico State and Denver have very good programs. If we can add a few schools and get some momentum going, we think the WAC can be a very viable conference."
With the WAC's future in flux and the winds of conference realignment still swirling, the folks with the toughest jobs are probably the coaches at the league's three remaining schools. They must sell recruits on an uncertain future, ease the concerns of current players and keep their teams focused entering the new season.
When Denver made the decision to leave the Sun Belt Conference and come to the WAC last year, Pioneers coach Joe Scott was ecstatic about the move because he believed both recruits and fans would be more familiar with his new league. Scott is disappointed the WAC won't include the likes of Utah State, Nevada or Idaho anymore, yet he is hopeful that the league will still survive and flourish beyond this season.
"Conference affiliation is important for where you recruit and what your footprint is, and we don't really recruit the Sun Belt," Scott said. "The WAC has really helped our recruiting. The WAC has been around forever in this part of the country. Hopefully as it goes forward we'll be able to stay in the WAC because this can be a good situation for us."
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