In the 1990s, WAC produced a 16-team conference that didn’t work
Karl Benson never will forget the April day in 1994 he was hired as WAC commissioner.
“I interviewed on Sunday and got a call that night. I was offered the job and told they were adding six teams,” says Benson, who was hired away from the MAC and remains the WAC’s commissioner.
“I was surprised. I was handed off the six schools. The WAC’s geography stretched from El Paso to Honolulu. With the new schools, it went from Tulsa to Honolulu and Houston to Laramie.”
Just like that, Benson was in charge of the first 16-team conference. Little did he know that he was seeing what could be standard in the future, as talk of college football morphing into four 16-team “super conferences” is all the rage.
But the nation’s first “super” conference lasted only three years (1996-98), torn apart by disparate athletic agendas — and unwieldy boundaries.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea at the time,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill says. “Let’s just say that I was very skeptical. That’s a fair way of putting it. …
“Why was I skepticalâ¢ Because it seemed so big. And we hadn’t really thought that way as ADs. We had thought of going to 12. There seemed to be, right out of the gate, some complications. It was such an unknown you had to question what would be next.”
Before the Pac-12, SEC or any other Big Six league makes the plunge, it should study what happened to the WAC’s 16-team experiment from 1996-98.
“We were first to make a move like that,” says Texas State coach Dennis Franchione, who was coach of New Mexico (1992-97) at the time. “It did seem the trend of things.”
The good — and the bad
With the notion of 16-team conferences trending, there seem to be some benefits.
Those crying for a playoff finally may see one if the sport transforms into four 16-team conferences. The structure seemingly lends itself to a tidy postseason setup.
One possible scenario is an eight-team playoff. Give the four conference champs playoff spots, and use the BCS standings to select four other at-large squads.
“(A 16-team league) seems to be a popular opinion out there, that everything is going to 16 teams,” Hill says. “I’m not so sure. …
“I know (Pac-12 commissioner) Larry Scott and Pac-12 presidents were interested in going to 16 teams, and I can see them in some dominant TV areas. I can see the attraction of it. But from a standpoint of rivalries and a cohesiveness of the league, it’s difficult.”
The move to 16 teams would come about because of TV contracts, and a collection of 16 major universities sprinkled in massive population centers with big TV markets would seem to equal huge broadcast revenues. The recent TV deal signed by the Pac-12 was enormous. How much more loot could the league get with a 16-team format?
But as the WAC showed, such large conference often mean a diverse set of agendas and priorities that don’t always match.
“We were a very diverse conference — geographically, academically, private schools, church school, Asian culture with Hawaii, military culture with Air Force,” Benson says. “We tried to promote it as the most unique conference in the nation –16 schools, nine states, four time zones, 4,000 miles, no limits.
“That was our original promotional tagline.”
It sounded good. But it didn’t work.
Multitude of teams means multitude of problems
In April 1994, the WAC board of directors made the decision to expand its ranks from 10 teams. The decision came with the Southwest Conference about to disband and the Big 12 on the verge of hatching. It also was the same time that the College Football Association was in the process of dissolving, causing every league but the Big Ten and Pac-10 to seek its own TV arrangements.
The thought by the WAC’s board was to get to 12 teams and add a championship game to maximize its TV potential. It was all about TV: The WAC wanted to make itself as desirable as possible as it entered the TV marketplace by itself for the first time.
“ESPN said it would pay the WAC ‘x’ regardless of what schools we added,” Benson says. “And they would pay us another ‘x’ if we had a championship game.”
But when the WAC sent out notice it was interested in growing from 10 to 12 teams, there was intense interest from a number of schools looking for homes. UNLV, San Jose State and Nevada were Big West Conference schools within the WAC footprint, and they made the most sense geographically. But when SMU, Rice, Houston and TCU became available after the SWC broke up, it widened the choices for the WAC.
In the end, the WAC added six schools: SMU, Rice and TCU from the SWC; UNLV and San Jose State from the Big West; and Tulsa, which was an independent. The 10 WAC holdovers were BYU, Utah, Colorado State, Air Force, Wyoming, New Mexico, San Diego State, UTEP, Fresno State and Hawaii.
“I think they had a hard time knowing who to tell ‘no’ to,” says LaSalle AD Tom Brennan, who was athletic director at San Jose State from 1990-97.
It was an uncomfortable association from the beginning. And it wasn’t nearly as lucrative as some had envisioned.
“The reality, in Texas, Dallas and most Texas areas are owned by Texas and Texas A&M,” Hill says. “And in the (San Francisco) Bay Area are Cal, Stanford and pro sports. So though we added schools in big TV markets, it didn’t really influence much the value of our TV contract.”
The far-flung geography posed its own set of issues.
“The 16-team WAC failed from within,” Benson says. “There were schools that never bought into the 16 teams. The 10 original WAC members never had buy-in from all the athletic directors and some of the high-profile coaches. They were critics, not supporters.
“The other thing that kept it hard to manage– the presidents never had a natural North-South or East-West division. There weren’t eight teams that naturally fit either East-West or North-South. As a result, we couldn’t come up with permanent divisions.”
Geographic incongruity is just one of the issues a 16-team league would have to wrestle with today. There also are expanded travel expenses (which would vastly increase in some cases), scheduling issues and the loss of rivalries.
“There usually is commonality and regionality to a league,” Franchione says. “There was difficulty to get people to agree on the direction of things. Hawaii had a different outlook than someone in Texas. It was a broad consortium of opinions and thoughts that sometimes was hard to mesh together.”
To help combat the wide-ranging geography, the WAC developed the concept of “pods.”
“We had two years of preparation before going to 16,” Benson says. “The first thing we had to address: What will the divisions beâ¢ We created four groups of four, a pod system.”
The league grouped the teams along quasi-geographic lines: SMU, Rice, Tulsa and TCU; San Diego State, Fresno State, Hawaii and San Jose State; BYU, Utah, UTEP and New Mexico; and Air Force, Wyoming, Colorado State and UNLV.
“The idea of quads was interesting,” Brennan says. “The intention was to keep rotating the quads, but you don’t develop rivalries like you would with set divisions.”
It didn’t necessarily look all that awkward from outside, but there was some criticism inside, Benson says. That led to BYU and Utah saying in the spring of 1998 that they wanted two permanent divisions.
In that scenario, there needed to be compromises, as some schools were going to have to bite the bullet and move to an East Division.
New Mexico and UTEP agreed to do it. But Air Force and UNLV weren’t happy. In fact, Benson says that Air Force threatened to go independent. Eventually, Air Force received the support of Colorado State and Wyoming.
Thus, if there were to be divisions, Air Force and UNLV would be unhappy, but if quad play continued, BYU and Utah would be rankled.
The breakup began.
“That’s when the presidents of the ‘Gang of Five’ BYU, Utah, Wyoming, CSU and Air Force met in the Denver airport to talk about the future,” Benson says. “And that’s when those five said, ‘Hell with this; we are going to form a new league.’ ”
They invited New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State, and the grouping became the Mountain West Conference. The 16-team WAC died after the 1998 season.
Not everyone was happy.
“I think it was a good move (for the WAC to move to 16 teams),” says Sonny Lubick, who was coach at Colorado State from 1993-2007. “I think we were ahead of it. I enjoyed it as a coach. … I do think it was ahead of its time.”
Everything’s gone green
Today, there is speculation that the Pac-12 and SEC are about to take the 16-team plunge.
The biggest losers in this seeming rush to 16-team leagues look to be the Big 12, Big East and ACC, whose teams appear primed to be poached by the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12.
Texas A&M seemingly is poised to join the SEC. Would the SEC then look to add three more schools, or would it be willing to have 14?
Oklahoma officials have stated publicly that the school would consider leaving the Big 12, leading to speculation that Texas Tech, Texas and Oklahoma State would join Oklahoma in an exodus to the Pac-12, a move Colorado made after last season. That would push the Pac-12’s ranks to 16.
Big Ten officials have said little of late and seem content to remain at 12 schools after adding Nebraska this year. But there is no question the Big Ten still is dealing from a position of strength, especially in comparison to the ACC, Big East and Big 12.
“Is 16 too manyâ¢ I did think it was too many,” says Franchione, whose Texas State program, ironically, will join the WAC next season as it moves from the FCS ranks to FBS. “It was for the WAC, but it may not be for a bigger league with BCS money. But for the WAC, I think it was going to be difficult revenue-wise. The division of revenue would be difficult. That may not be the case today for bigger conferences.”
Benson says revenue is the key.
“If there is more money to be made by going to 16,” he says, “then it wouldn’t surprise me if there is some 16-team league.”
The ‘what-if?’ game
What if a 16-team WAC had survived?
“It would be an AQ (automatic qualifying) league now,” WAC commissioner Karl Benson says. “I firmly believe that. The WAC breakup allowed for the structure of FCS to tier itself and created six AQ leagues and five non-AQs.
“Had the WAC stayed, we would have seven BCS, and the other leagues wouldn’t be just below the line, they wouldn’t even be in the organization. And Boise State wouldn’t be what it is today because there wouldn’t have been a spot for Boise to make the move from the Big Sky to the Big West to the WAC.”
The 16-team WAC
Here’s a look at the makeup of the WAC from 1996-98, including what league the school was in when the league expanded to 16.
Air Force—WAC—Mountain West—Mountain West
Colorado State—WAC—Mountain West—Mountain West
Fresno State—WAC—WAC—Mountain West
New Mexico—WAC—Mountain West—Mountain West
Rice—Southwest—Conference USA—Conference USA
San Diego State—WAC—Mountain West—Mountain West
San Jose State—Big West—WAC—WAC
SMU—Southwest—Conference USA—Conference USA
UNLV—Big West—Mountain West—Mountain West
TCU—Southwest—Mountain West—Big East
Tulsa—Independent—Conference USA—Conference USA
UTEP—WAC—Conference USA—Conference USA
Wyoming—WAC—Mountain West—Mountain West