WAC back from the dead, again, for now
When we last discussed the Western Athletic Conference — or “ZombieWAC,” as the cool kids call it — it appeared to be well and truly in its death throes, utterly desperate for members, yet utterly without options. The shiny new league that Denver happily joined in November 2010 was sinking fast, and even the most earnest pleas to potential “recruits” (i.e., schools that might consider joining) seemed certain to fall on deaf ears.
At that point, back in April 2012, five members — or planned future members — were departing en masse for various greener pastures, leaving the league without its marquee remaining team (Utah State) and, more importantly, with just two football members (Idaho and New Mexico State) and four non-football members (Denver, Seattle, UT-Arlington, and Boise State) beyond the 2012-13 season.
Since then, Boise too has jumped ship, as expected, and so has UT-Arlington. That left just four teams — Idaho, New Mexico State, Denver and Seattle — and Idaho has received approval to join the Big Sky, though it may not do so until after the 2013-14 season, because it wants to collect departure fee money from the previous defectors.
In August, WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd bowed to the inevitable, acknowledging that this 2012-13 season will be the WAC’s last as a football conference. Idaho and NMSU, lacking other FBS options, would have to try and make a go of it as independent FBS football schools, or else drop down to FCS (as Idaho would if it joined the Big Sky in all sports). The WAC, meanwhile, would attempt to rebuild as a Division 1 non-football league in 2013-14 and beyond.
But with just four remaining members, one of them (Idaho) having a foot out the door, it wasn’t clear if even that would be possible. Although Karl Benson, in a parting gift to the WAC, spearheaded the elimination of the “core teams” rule — which would have killed the WAC by now, if it were still in force — conferences still need at least seven basketball members to qualify for NCAA auto-bids, though they can drop down to six members temporarily during a two-year grace period. In any case, three or four teams obviously would not cut it. And who would accept an invitation to the WAC in its flailing state?
Utah Valley University and Cal State Bakersfield, that’s who. The news leaked out last week, and the official announcement came today. The WAC lives!
The Wolverines of UVU and the Roadrunners of CSB will join the WAC in 2013-14, swelling the league’s ranks from 4 to 6 members, assuming Idaho stays for at least that season, as it appears likely the Vandals will. That means the WAC will apparently be able to stick around for at least another year. PARTY!!
If you’ve lost track, and it’s easy to do, that sextet of members is: Idaho, New Mexico State, Denver, Seattle, Utah Valley, and Cal State Bakersfield. Here’s what the geographic “footprint” will look like:
That roster should allow the WAC to limp along for the moment — as a “Weakling WAC” rather than a “Zombie WAC,” you might say — and probably makes the prospect of staying put, for now, more attractive to Denver than any of the Pioneers’ paltry non-WCC alternatives (Summit League, Big Sky, or back to the Sun Belt, assuming any of those leagues would have DU at this point). Instead, at least for 2013-14, Denver figures to compete with NMSU and, I guess, Seattle(?), for a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Downside: the league is terrible — absolutely terrible. Upside: really good chance at earning an NCAA bid! (But the Pioneers will have to schedule really well in the non-conference to avoid a #16 seed and a trip to Dayton.)
That said, six teams isn’t enough indefinitely, especially given that Idaho’s likely departure would put the WAC at five teams in 2014-15, at which point the “grace period” provision wouldn’t protect them. But never fear! Jeff Hurd has his eye on more terrible teams to shore up the league!
Hurd also confirmed that Texas-Pan American and Chicago State are two other schools that could be included in WAC non-football membership in the future.
Inviting UTPA and Chicago State would complete the dismantling of the Great West Conference, leaving only the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) without a home from that crumbling league. More to the point for our purposes, UTPA and Chicago State would get the WAC up to 8 teams (with Idaho) or, more likely, 7 (without the Vandals) in 2014-15. If I understand the rules correctly, that would be enough to allow the league to stay alive indefinitely, barring more defections.
Commissioner Hurd, though, says he wants to expand further — probably a good idea, since further defections are nearly inevitable. Hurd says the “first step” is to get to 8 teams (I’m not sure if he’s including Idaho in that count), but both he and his assistant commissioner, Connie Hurlbut, says the ultimate goal is 10-12 teams. That would likely require either expanding waaaaay outside of the league’s current footprint (hello, NJIT?), looking at Division II schools interested in moving up to Division I (Colorado School of Mines to the WAC?), or both.
For now, though, the Zombie WAC is allliiiiivvvveeee, and Denver’s best course of action is probably to stay put, try to dominate its weakling league (ideally starting this season, though that will require beating Utah State in the Blue Aggies’ last year), and perhaps audition for the WCC in the process. (Seattle may have a similar idea.) Who knows, maybe 2 or 3 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, with a first-round upset or Sweet 16 run mixed in somewhere, would get Jamie Zaninovich’s attention.
Again, a key component of this strategy would be non-conference scheduling: to have any hope of avoiding an impossible first-round tourney matchup (in the event they do win the Weakling WAC and qualify for the Big Dance), the Pioneers will need to really play a strong non-league schedule. And they’ll need quantity as well as quality, unless the 6-team WAC plans on doing a triple or quadruple round-robin! Heh. But that “quantity” can’t be a bunch of filler that drags down their RPI and dooms them to a date with Dayton and the #QuadPIG. It’ll be a really tough scheduling challenge.
By the way, aside from linked articles and summaries of historical events, this post is based entirely on my own slightly-informed speculation. I don’t have any inside information about Denver’s future plans, WAC alternatives, or anything else. But the options are so manifestly limited that it’s pretty easy to sketch out the conceivable options.
P.S. An informative article from late August, about the mutual interest between the WAC and Division II Grand Canyon University, explains some key details that are highly relevant to charting the WAC’s next move:
The WAC needs members. Grand Canyon wants to move up.
The hitch is that there just might not be enough time.
“Personally, I think Grand Canyon is one of the schools that has a great deal of potential,” Hurd said. “I think they fit into the WAC footprint very well.”
Trouble is, even if the WAC invited Grand Canyon, the process takes three or four years. Once a 16-school conference, the WAC has four members committed beyond 2012-13 — the University of Denver, Seattle University, Idaho and New Mexico State. … [T]he conference must have at least seven members that offer a minimum of six women’s and six men’s “NCAA championship” sports to remain alive. …
“The problem with adding Grand Canyon is it doesn’t help us from a Division I standpoint right now. Where they could be of help is down the road. We’re aware of them. They’ve expressed interest.
“It’s unfortunate, but we don’t have the time to wait. We have to meet our minimum first before we invite Grand Canyon or anyone else. That’s our first priority.”
Grand Canyon Athletics Director Keith Baker said he has considered asking the NCAA for an exemption to the NCAA’s requirements for changing divisions in hopes of speeding up a move that makes so much sense for the WAC and for Grand Canyon.
“Out in the West, it’s different,” he said. “There aren’t as many institutions or as many leagues. If it means saving an historic league, maybe they would consider it. As it is, we wouldn’t be much help to a conference in need. We’re almost a liability.” …
Hurd would love to have the Antelopes in his conference — assuming he still has one to run.
“If we can get to the minimum number of members, it makes sense to get that clock started for their Division I status,” he said.
Some simple math allows us to update that article’s conclusions. Assuming again that Idaho stays for 2013-14, then leaves for 2014-15, the WAC now has:
- 6 members in 2013-14 (needs 6 for “grace period”)
- 5 members in 2014-15 (needs 6 for “grace period”)
- 5 members in 2015-16 and beyond (needs 7)
If Grand Canyon or another Division II school were invited tomorrow, it sounds like, barring an NCAA exemption, they wouldn’t be able to join until 2016-17 at the earliest. (The process takes “three or four years,” and remember each “year” starts July 1, so the earliest possible date the clock could start ticking would presumably be July 1, 2013.) For the sake of argument, let’s assume no NCAA exemption, and try to figure out what this means.
Before it can consider inviting Division II members to shore up its future ranks, the WAC needs two additional current Division I schools, with at least one of them joining by 2014-15, and another by 2015-16 (and possibly 2016-17 as well).
There aren’t really very many options in that regard. We already discussed Texas-Pan American and Chicago State, and they really do appear to be the beginning, and perhaps the end, of the realistic list of choices.
Most of the Division I schools in the West are already in a better conference situation than the WAC could offer. It’s hard to see anyone leaving the Big Sky, for instance, or the Big West, just to join a still-unstable and competitively awful WAC.
Perhaps turmoil in the Summit League, which is also shedding members, could drive some schools from that league’s western flank — North Dakota State, South Dakota State, South Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and Missouri-Kansas City — into the WAC’s arms, but that seems unlikely to me. That league still has nine teams, and a far more reasonable geographic footprint than, say, Seattle-to-Omaha-to-Las-Cruces-to-Bakersfield.
Could the WAC poach teams from the Southland? Seems unlikely. Oral Roberts, an up-and-coming program, is leaving the Summit League for the Southland; they seem to think that’s an upgrade, and who am I to argue? The Southland is another relatively stable and geographically compact league; as such, it seems preferable to the WAC at this point. The same logic would seemingly apply to the SWAC, and, of course, to larger leagues like the Sun Belt.
By now, scanning over the Division I map looking for options (an exercise Jeff Hurd must surely have engaged in many times), we’re at the Mississippi River, and it’s hard to see a school east of the Mississippi leaving a geographically sensible conference to join a sprawled and struggling WAC. The only eastern schools that would consider the WAC are, presumably, those that are desperate to find a conference home, any conference home — like Chicago State and, I suppose, NJIT.
So basically, as I see it, Texas-Pan American and Chicago State are the options, with NJIT as a distant fallback. It seems to me like the WAC needs to just go ahead and invite UTPA and Chicago State, lock them down for 2014-15 and beyond (if not sooner) — and then start thinking long-term, with invites to Division II schools like Grand Canyon University. After all, who knows what defections might occur by 2016-17 (like Denver to the WCC, or New Mexico State to the Sun Belt?). There’s no reason not to, as Hurd puts it, “get the clock started” on those D-II invites now, as an insurance policy against future defections and membership crises.
So… what is the WAC waiting for?
I wonder why UTPA and Chicago State weren’t invited simultaneously with UVU and CS-Bakersfield. I wonder if negotiations are already underway with those schools, and if there’s some hold-up or snag. Hmm. The Great West is manifestly falling apart — having served its purpose, Andy Glockner argues — so surely its remaining schools aren’t interested in standing pat. Might UTPA be getting interest from the Southland or SWAC? Might Chicago State be receiving overtures from the Horizon League or the Summit League?
If either or, especially, both of those schools join other conferences, it seems to me that the WAC would be right back on life support for 2014-15, or even conceivably 2013-14, if Idaho sees the writing on the wall and bails early, or another member defects for the same reason.
Basically, if UTPA and Chicago State go elsewhere, it might be time to go ahead and start begging the NCAA for that exemption, to speed up the process of getting a D-II school like Grand Canyon University (or West Texas A&M) on board quickly to save the league.