Last Thursday, the University of Denver threw a press conference, and a party broke out.
DU’s announcement that 10 of its 17 teams, including its basketball programs, were joining the Western Athletic Conference in 2012-13, was a lot more than just some suits standing at a podium, taking questions. I was on the fence about whether to attend until basketball SID Mike Kennedy told me there would be “pageantry.” He wasn’t kidding.
The cheerleaders were there, as was the band. So were the coaches of all 10 affected teams, and all available athletes. There were balloons. There was free swag. There were WAC banners and signs everywhere. And there was Karl Benson, the WAC commissioner, who didn’t attend the announcements at Texas-San Antonio and Texas State — an unfortunate consequence of his inability to be three places at once — but did attend DU’s wet, sloppy kiss to his otherwise much-maligned conference, now attempting to stagger back to life after its near-death experience in August.
“The Western Athletic Conference is an iconic athletics conference associated with the West,” said DU Chancellor Robert Coombe. “We are absolutely thrilled — absolutely thrilled — to become a member of the Western Athletic Conference.”
“This is a day of celebration,” said DU’s athletic director*, Peg Bradley‐Doppes. “There were some happy tears with our alums coming in. This is a day that we all envisioned. We didn’t know when it would happen, but we had the dream. The dream is now a reality.” She said joining the WAC was the culmination of a five-year “strategic plan specifically for today, for this purpose, to get into a new conference.”
The event — which you can watch here — left no doubt that Denver was overjoyed to earn a spot in the WAC, leaving behind the geographically awkward Sun Belt in favor of a more regionally appropriate, higher-profile conference. But the question must be asked: is DU’s joy out of proportion to the actual benefit of its move, at least in basketball terms?
The speeches and statements Thursday were peppered with references to the historical legacy and tradition and “brand” of the WAC. “The entire university community is pleased to be joining a league that has such a great tradition of athletic excellence in the West,” said Coombe. The WAC “offers a storied championship tradition and is one of the most recognizable conferences in this region,” said Bradley-Doppes.
But, at least in basketball terms, Denver isn’t joining the league that sent Utah to the national title game in 1998 and Tulsa to the Elite Eight in 2000. Heck, it isn’t even joining the league that saw Nevada reach the Sweet Sixteen in 2004, and the second round twice since. Rather, it’s joining a cast of characters that has won exactly one NCAA game in the last seventeen years (Utah State, in 2001, when it was a member of the Big West).
The caller posing as Al Lewis of Utah State Radio who snuck into the WAC teleconference last Thursday and asked Benson to admit that he will have “the worst conference in the USA” (see video starting at 10:00 mark) was surely exaggerating and being unfair. But it’s also certainly true that the WAC ain’t what it used to be.
Crunching the numbers, courtesy of Basketball State, I was surprised to discover that, in the last five years (the period of time in which the WAC has had its current nine-team membership), the three departing teams — Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State — were all among the league’s top six, RPI-wise. Nevada was #2, which is no surprise; the Wolf Pack are a mid-major powerhouse, second only to Utah State in recent WAC history. But Boise State, better known for its football exploits, was #4 out of the nine-team conference, and Fresno State was #6.
With those members departing, what’s left is something of a rump conference, featuring two high-flyers, the “Blue Aggies” of Utah State (#1) and the “Red Aggies” of New Mexico State (#3), and four teams that were at or below the midpoint of the previous WAC (which was already diluted from its late 1990s and early 2000s highs). The loss of Nevada, Boise and Fresno drops the conference’s five-year average RPI from 148 to 161.
Adding Texas-San Antonio, Texas State and Denver makes things even worse, at least for now, dropping the average another 30 points to 191. Admittedly, that’s not entirely fair, since RPI is partly a function of conference strength, and being in the Southland and Sun Belt conferences obviously had a negative impact on those teams’ RPIs over the last half-decade. But the point is, these new teams are by no means the equivalent of BYU joining the WCC and giving that league an instant shot in the arm. If UTSA, TSU and DU were recruits or draft picks, they’d be still-developing guys with a lot of upside, not instant-impact players.
I asked Coach Joe Scott about all this. He insisted that the RPI numbers do not paint a complete picture of the new conference’s strength, noting that life in the mid-majors tends to be cyclical, and that a number of DU’s soon-to-be conference-mates are improving. He’s got a point: the overall average of the six remaining members has improved significantly in the last three years, from 222 to 147 to 129. Including the three new members, the trend is still evident: the annual average has improved from 231 to 174 to 152.
What it’s put that way, and assuming the upward trend doesn’t reverse itself, joining the WAC sounds like a significantly better deal for DU. Last year’s numbers are roughly comparable to the WCC’s averages, with or without BYU, and the recent years are vastly better than the Sun Belt’s numbers, which have actually worsened slightly over the same period (185, 195, 212).
Still, the bottom line is this. Despite all the talk about historical legacies and traditions of excellence, all of which implicitly refers in part to long-departed teams like Utah, Tulsa, UNLV, New Mexico, UTEP, etc., the nine-team league that Denver is joining — Utah State, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, Hawaii, San Jose State, Idaho, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio, and the Pioneers — appears objectively to be, in the awkward and amorphous lexicon of sub-Red Line stratification that Kyle Whelliston assiduously avoids, but most of us find impossible to resist, closer to a “low-major” than a “mid-major.”
Can the WAC get to the point where it’s a regular multi-bid league? Probably, eventually. Is it there right now? No. Is it close? Not really.
There’s also the matter of football revenue, and even more important, potential instability in the current conference-swapping climate. Denver doesn’t play football — it was added by the WAC specifically because the conference wanted a non-football member to round out its numbers in other sports — but DU will have to pay very close attention to football-related expansion machinations as they continue to play out over the next several years, because the WAC remains exceedingly vulnerable if things start moving again.
To briefly review, for those who haven’t followed it closely: at the tail end of the recently concluded Summer of Conference Commissioners’ Discontent — which saw tectonic shifts threatened, then only partially realized, in the structure of college athletics — the WAC went from ascendant mid-major conference, nearly usurping the Mountain West in that department, to decimated and nearly dead — all in a single day in mid-August.
The Mountain West, which had already lost Utah to the Pac-10 but gained Boise State from the WAC, learned that flagship member BYU was planning to go independent in football and join the WAC in all other sports. So the MWC launched a pre-emptive strike, poaching Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC — even though those schools had just agreed to a $5 million early departure penalty, specifically to secure the BYU deal — in order to make the WAC an unattractive landing spot for BYU and, presumably, convince the Cougars to stay put.
It didn’t work. BYU still went indy; it just joined the WCC instead of the WAC in non-football sports. So the MWC essentially replaced Utah & BYU with the WAC’s top third: Boise, Fresno and Nevada. Meanwhile, the WAC was left in an exceptionally tenuous position, with just six teams still in the fold — none of them football powers, to say the least. Six is something of a magic number in these matters: a conference must have six core members, who have been together for at least five years, in order to qualify as a recognized, NCAA-sanctioned conference. Drop below six core teams, and things like automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament start disappearing. So if the WAC loses even a single additional team — such as Hawaii, which has mused openly about going independent, or Louisiana Tech, which would probably jump at an offer from Conference USA or maybe even the more geographically logical Sun Belt — it’s toast.
The events of August 18 led to a lawsuit, which was later settled, opening the door for the WAC’s latest moves. But even after the additions of UTSA, Texas State and Denver, the six-core-team problem still remains. Barring a waiver of some sort from the NCAA in the event of losing another core member, the WAC won’t be completely “safe” from potential destruction due to other conferences’ poaching until 2017-18, when the new teams will become five-year core members. In the current expansion climate, that’s a loooong time.
I asked Benson last Thursday whether there were any plans to introduce a new exit penalty like the short-lived $5 million agreement that Nevada and Fresno violated in August. He didn’t answer directly, but the gist of his response appeared to be: no. So, teams will remain free to leave.
And the WAC will probably need to hold itself together without much prospect of extra revenue from BCS bids in football, and perhaps with a less friendly TV deal at some point (although I’ve read that the current ESPN contract goes through 2016-17; not sure if ESPN has any “outs”), given the collapse of the league’s football fortunes (which is far more severe than its step backward in basketball).
In his teleconference last Thursday, commissioner Benson put a brave face on this issue, spinning it as best he could by arguing that any of the current members, and/or either of the newly added Texas schools, has the potential to become “the next Boise State” (and Denver, he added later, could be “the next Gonzaga”). He also noted that even without Boise, the WAC remains one of just two non-AQ conferences that has placed a team in a big-money bowl. That’s true; he’s talking about the Hawaii team that got crushed by Georgia in the 2008 Sugar Bowl. But would that Warriors team, which was on the outskirts of the Top 12 autobid zone as it was, have had the computer profile to make the BCS if it had played UTSA and Texas State in its conference schedule instead of Boise, Fresno and Nevada? I doubt it. It’ll be a much, much tougher road for WAC teams now.
The new WAC becomes, at best, a bit like the MAC — a conference that might be able to place a team in the BCS, maybe, if it catches lightning in a bottle and produces an undefeated team that edges into the Top 12 (or Top 16, if an AQ conference like the Big East is bad enough) in a year when the MWC and C-USA produce a 1-loss — or maybe 2-loss — champion. (See, e.g., Ball State, which would have been in position to just barely qualify for a BCS berth at 13-0 in 2008-09 if it hadn’t lost to Buffalo in the conference title game, and if Utah and Boise hadn’t been well ahead of it.)
Alternatively, at worst, the WAC becomes more like the Sun Belt, whose name has quite possibly never been uttered in the same sentence as the term “BCS” until this very moment. Either way, it’s fairly unlikely the WAC will be adding any BCS money to its members’ coffers anytime soon. Which, of course, only increases the chances that some teams might be tempted to look elsewhere if the opportunity arises, thus jeopardizing the WAC’s very survival as a conference.
There is a way Denver could have avoided the uncertainty of being in a conference sitting perpetually on the edge of a precipice: they could have joined the WCC instead. And they would arguably have gotten into a better basketball league in the process.
The WCC’s average RPI over the last five years, without BYU, is 156. With BYU, it’s 143 — and, just as important, it features three teams in the top 54 nationally, average RPI-wise (#22 Gonzaga, #32 BYU and #54 Saint Mary’s). The WAC has just one such team, #43 Utah State. Next is New Mexico State, at #92.
During the summer and fall, Joe Scott and others talked openly about the fact that not just the WAC, but also the WCC, was on Denver’s radar, and vice versa. I think it’s fair to say that, if the WCC had offered Denver a spot, it would have been snapped up eagerly, regardless of what the WAC wanted to do. The geography is perhaps slightly less ideal, but it’s still not bad, especially with new member BYU already expanding the conference’s footprint into the Rocky Mountain region. The institutional fit with the other universities is good. The conference is stable — it doesn’t play football, so it doesn’t run the risk of implosion due to football-driven machinations. And, basketball-wise, the WCC appears to be superior to the current iteration of the WAC, especially at the top.
But the WCC is evidently happy to remain at nine teams for now, and Denver wasn’t going to stay put and let the opportunity offered by the WAC — undeniably an improvement over the Sun Belt — pass it by. So they made the jump, and understandably so. Now they just have to cross their fingers that the center holds for the next seven years.
If it does, then it will continue to be — as everyone kept saying last Thursday — a good day to be a Pioneer.
*Bradley‐Doppes’s technical title is Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation and Ritchie Center Operations. But the generic “athletic director” is less of a mouthful, don’t you think?
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