There is no reviving the Western Athletic Conference. It’s done, kaput, finito, gone. Last one out, shut off the lights. The conference is reportedly losing five of an already scant seven members, leaving only idaho and New Mexico State beyond the coming season (and rumors aplenty swirl Wednesday of NMSU’s exit for the Sun Belt).
Interim commissioner Jeff Hurd could lead last ditch efforts to entice FCS programs, but Montana, UC Davis and Cal Poly already balked on the WAC when it was on much stronger footing. How much sustainability does a desperate raid on the Southland Conference offer?
Younger football fans and those without knowledge of the sport’s past will remember the WAC for what it was in its twilight years: under-exposed, home to a few good teams and a lot teetering on the edge of the FBS; a transitional home before something better came along, like a BCS Ellis Island. It began a slow march to oblivion 16 years ago that accelerated to a sprint in a matter of days.
But the WAC was once a proud league that provided landmark moments in college football history. Some of these moments altered its very landscape.
Driving the non-AQ movement through the BCS era’s latter half was Boise State. The Broncos became the public face for non-BCS conference equality among the power brokers with two Fiesta Bowl wins, annual top 20 finishes, and four perfect regular seasons (2004, 2006, 2008, 2009).
Of course, Boise State would not have become Boise State without Fresno State. Pat Hill’s “anyone, anytime, anywhere” philosophy turned eyes to the Valley, thereby turning eyes to the WAC.
Fresno State was the first non-BCS conference program to really generate significant party crashing chatter, starting with its 2001 defeat of reigning Fiesta Bowl winner Oregon State. The ’01 Bulldogs were a high-tempo, fun team, driven by Heisman candidate (and in my estimation, rightful winner of the 2001 bronze man) David Carr. The clash between Fresno State and Boise State had historical implications, and became the springboard for the Broncos’ national profile.
Before BSU, the WAC was stomping ground for BYU.
LaVell Edwards’ Cougars were the original program to kick in the door on the big boys. The BYU of the 1980s through 1990 achieved all BSU and Fresno State strived for, and in then some.
The 1984 Cougars were the last team not from one of the Big Six conferences or Notre Dame to win a national championship. Likewise, BYU quarterback Ty Detmer became the last player from one of the “other” leagues to win the Heisman Trophy, in 1990 — hence his name gracing this very site’s non-AQ MVP award.
Just two seasons after boasting the best quarterback in college football, the WAC was home to the nation’s top running back in San Diego State’s Marshall Faulk. Faulk’s Heisman loss is another of those votes I cannot help but wonder if there are ballots floating about with hanging chads. Yes, a hanging chads reference. It’s dated, let’s move on.
With Boise State, Fresno State and 2007 Hawai’i, the recent WAC incarnation was a forerunner in challenging the BCS status quo. That makes the WAC’s place in BCS history all the more ironic, because the BCS wouldn’t be what it is without the conference.
Rewind to the WAC’s formation in 1962. Wyoming boasted some strong teams in the 1950s. Arizona, Arizona State and New Mexico had outgrown the Border Conference (their departures effectively shut down that league). Regional solidarity brought them together with Utah and BYU to form the new conference. But like in the modern era, receiving attention from the big boys was a struggle for outsider conferences, and that translated into a lack of bowl opportunities for WAC members.
Frank Kush’s ASU teams became too strong to ignore. A top 10-ranked and undefeated ASU team earned a Peach Bowl bid in 1970. The Sun Devils drew well, and played better by walloping North Carolina. ASU’s showing in Atlanta became the catalyst behind the Fiesta Bowl.
The Fiesta Bowl was initially the WAC’s host bowl, ostensibly becoming the Sun Devil Invitational in the Kush years. Less than two decades after its arrival, the Fiesta was a premier bowl. By 1987, it was hosting the national championship game. The pairing of Miami vs. Penn State held there is one of the most famous title bouts in the sport’s history, and was a key moment in elevating the Fiesta to BCS status 12 years later.
From Kush, to Edwards, to Fisher DeBerry to Chris Petersen; from Mike Haynes, to Detmer, to Faulk, Carr, Colt Brennan and Kellen Moore the WAC leaves behind a legacy that should be celebrated over its feeble and frail final state.