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‚ÄźDoppes. “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?

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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.

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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.

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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‚ÄźDoppes’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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Comments on "Is Denver too excited about joining the WAC?"

4 Responses to “Is Denver too excited about joining the WAC?”

  1. Puck Swami Says:

    Awesome explanation, Brendan.

    DU is an east coast style school with an east coast private school sports menu in a western location. We’re an “odd-duck” for any conference, given who we are and what we offer, and that won’t be changing much given the overall role of athletics in DU’s strategy and the money available to fund it. In other words, DU won’t be bringing on football or baseball or track anytime soon.

    When you look at DU’s athletic program, it’s there to bring wider exposure and win games, but the end game is more about broadeing the national brand for student attraction and experience.

    For example, there is a reason DU is pumping money into lacrosse – there are only about 24 scholarships and 80+ roster slots between the men and women’s lacrosee teams. Do the math and that means a lot of rich, full-tuition paying kids, many from the east, are walk ons are enrolling at DU to fill out those lax rosters, and those kids are attracting their non-athlete friends at prep schools to apply to DU. The sport “pays for itself” and extends the DU brand into prime student recruiting territory. DU needs more and more of those full-pay kids to offset all the general scholarships for the diversity they want, and with an endowment of $300 million, DU is still a tuition-driven place…With the number of general freshman nationally starting to decline, the competition for the full-pay kid is going get fierce, aand wants to deliver an experience that is going to attract and retain that affluent kid so they can afford to bring on the promising academic kids who have far less money.

    Going to the WAC isn’t really about a better quality league as much as it is about genertating some degree of geographic relevancy in this fickle and oversaturated Denver sports market. The last 10 years have proven that DU simply can’t draw hoops fans to see Sun Belt schools like South Alabama or Middle Tennessee State, but they have a much better chance of 4,000 coming out to see Utah State or NMSU, becuase at least there is a regional comfort zone with the names of the opponents out here. It also saves them a few travel bucks and missed class time, but at the end of the day, DU wants to be an NCAA tourney hoops team because they know it’s the primary chance they have to build a national brand for the school. Hockey is wonderful, but the appeal is regional rather than national right now, and DU wants to be in the national conversation.

    We’d be in the WCC in a heartbeat if they wanted us, but right now they don’t. They are trying to digest the seismic changes that BYU brings to their league. The WCC may be the long term option here if the climate for that gets better, and I think Karl Benson knows it, and so does Peg Bradley Doppes and Chancellor Coombe and all the DU board of trustees, That said, the WCC is not all peaches and cream either – there are a number of smaller private schools in that league that are more constrained financially than DU is, and their future in a tough California-based economy isn’t all that rosy right now. At least in the WAC, DU might not be the best academic fit, but the larger reamaining WAC schools at least have serious athletic budgets. If the WAC does go under due to football lanscape changes, DU wants the basketball program to be good enough to attract interest from other places.

  2. Brendan Loy Says:

    Puck, I love your lengthy, thoughtful and well-informed comments. Keep ’em coming! :)

  3. David K. Says:

    I have to imagine that Denver wouldn’t have even been the first team the WCC would have looked at if BYU didn’t join. They may have been perfectly happy to stay where they are and if they did want to expand I think former member Seattle U would have been considered first both for historic reasons and as a religious institution it fits with the other (almost all) Catholic schools better. Thats not to say they might not have chosen Denver or both of them.

    It seems though that they weren’t even looking to expand but BYU was too good an offer to pass up.

    Which is something I hadn’t considered about those people who keep bringing up the idea of USC/UCLA going independent in football ala BYU/Notre Dame (maybe Texas). Where would their non-football sports go? Anything less than a BCS level confernce is going to be a serious downgrade for them in most areas non-football wise, and that would have to hurt donations, recruiting, etc. Especially for a basketball program of UCLA’s stature I can’t imagine them moving, to say the WCC or WAC. Although I allready doubted that USC/UCLA would go independent before, I certainly doubt it even more now.

  4. Puck Swami Says:

    Seattle does have a WCC history and the Jesuit afflilation and the league footprint advantage, but I think DU is about 10 years ahead of Seattle as a full D-I school, and DU has a huge on-campus facility advantage over Seatte, who play in the old Seattle Super Sonics arena off campus. DU also has a larger athletics budget, larger endowment and better academic ranking over Seattle, so it may not be as cut-and-dried as people think.

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