A grand sporting experiment is upon us, channeling back our memories to days of last-call craziness, Final Fours and even a football national title.
Last week, the Western Athletic Conference announced it plans to start FCS football in the fall of 2021, bringing back a sport it abandoned in 2012 after 51 years. The same expansion will potentially jolt the WAC into the conversation for multiple at-large teams in the NCAA basketball tournament every year.
The combination of the WAC’s strong brand, ambitious leadership and betting on fertile markets make the recalibrated conference one of the most intriguing subplots in college athletics in the upcoming years. That includes a hope that in the next decade — perhaps as soon as five years — the league can leap into FBS football. Is there growth potential on the football fringes? We’re about to find out.
WAC football should be fondly remembered by college sports fans. It housed BYU during that school’s lone football national title in 1984. Over the years, WAC schools have also included SMU, TCU and Boise State. Stars have included Ty Detmer, who won the Heisman Trophy playing in the WAC, along with TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk. There are also BYU’s Steve Young, BYU’s Jim McMahon and Fresno State’s Trent Dilfer. For years, the WAC provided a beacon for late-night football on television.
Can this new version of the league help ignite schools, brands and emerge as an incubator for similar indelible stars and moments?
This version of the WAC, of course, doesn’t have the name recognition to be able to immediately microwave that caliber of success. This fall, the six-team FCS football league will include Tarleton State, Dixie State, Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. Southern Utah is slated to join in July 2022. The WAC is searching for two more schools in the upcoming months, which include a mix of FCS and Division II schools as targets.
The goal is for the schools to grow up together, merging their enrollments and ambitions, to once again end up with a league that’s a staple on bar room televisions, engaging weeknight contests and elite players. They are hoping to tap into the frontier spirit that made WAC football a venerable part of the college football landscape for 51 years.
“Our goal going into this is to immediately start laying out a plan among the presidents and athletic directors to develop a strategic plan to become an FBS conference,” said Dr. James Hurley, the president of Tarleton State. “That work will start Day 1. We understand that realistically this is going to be at least a five-year process.”
Immediate basketball respect will come quicker, as there’s strong history there all the way back to Utah’s two Final Fours as a WAC member (1966 and 1998). New Mexico State has reached the NCAA tournament via the WAC nine times since 2007, and the WAC has been a two-bid league as recently as 2010. In the early part of the last decade, it was regularly one of the sport’s top-15 leagues. A peek at WAC history shows a constellation of stars like UTEP’s Tim Hardaway, Utah’s Keith Van Horn and the immortal Fennis Dembo of Wyoming.
Losses of prominent schools to realignment and the trend of transferring up have drowned out the WAC’s basketball cachet in recent years. “Our bugaboo has been the top players leaving to go to [bigger leagues],” New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia said.
The elimination of football makes it difficult for any far-flung league. But there’s optimism that the league can again be considered for multiple tournament bids. Stephen F. Austin was 28-3 with an upset at No. 1 Duke last season and headed to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in seven years before the pandemic foiled that. With Bryce Drew at Grand Canyon and Billy Gillispie at Tarleton State, there will be some star power in the coaching ranks.
“No question about it, that was one of the big elements about this expansion,” WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd said when asked if the WAC can evolve into a two-bid league. “People tend to focus on the football piece, but the basketball piece is just as important, if not more important.”
Hurley and Stephen F. Austin athletic director Ryan Ivey were among the key leaders to help connect and develop this phase of the WAC’s expansion. There’s a feeling among the member schools that they have many of the integral ingredients to help the league grow into one that can again become a household name.
They point to markets in and around both Dallas and Houston. Hurley points to St. George, Utah, as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Large enrollments near big population centers have long been the building blocks for successful conferences. “We all want to use athletics to help grow the institution,” Ivey said. “And we feel like this move is going to allow us to do that.”
Next up for Hurd is a television deal, as the WAC’s current deal with ESPN expires after this season. The addition of FCS football will surely be more attractive to television suitors, and the distribution and exposure from that deal will set the table for any potential FBS move this decade. Hurd said a few questions need to be answered before fast-forwarding all the schools into the FBS in five years.
“What’s the landscape from an FBS standpoint in five years?” he asked. “What opportunities are there? Does the football playoff group welcome another conference? Can the bowl system absorb another conference? From a media-rights standpoint, is there enough out there?”
Can the league again be an incubator of Heisman winners, Final Four teams and future Detmers, Hardaways and Kaepernicks? We’re now at the intersection where institutional ambitions meet the financial realities of big-time college sports. And the answer will likely be revealed somewhere in the next decade if you flip on your television and see that familiar WAC logo.
The WAC is back in football and should be upgraded in basketball. We’ll see in the upcoming years if it can reestablish itself as part of the fabric of big-time college athletics.
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