University of Utah Among the Founders of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC)

by ALEX PAGOAGA

The Western Athletic Conference (WAC) was originally formed in 1962 after three years of discussions among several university officials of what would be the founding schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Brigham Young (BYU), New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. With this new cluster of teams all located in the Mountain Time Zone, the conference was set to establish itself on the national stage. Over the years, the WAC lost schools (Arizona and Arizona State) and gained schools (Colorado State, Texas-El Paso, San Diego State, Hawaii, and Fresno). The WAC was a success for thirty-four years despite having its ups and downs in athletic performance. In the late 1990s, the WAC tried to maintain pace with other conferences’ TV deals and revenue streams throughout the country and ended up losing almost everything.

The falling out of the original WAC started in 1994 after the announcement that the Southwest Conference would be disbanded. An article published in The Salt Lake Tribune on April 20, 1994, stated that the expansion had to happen for the WAC to improve. Otherwise, it would continue in the shadows of the true national power house conferences. The newly disbanded conference provided the perfect opportunity for expansion. But nobody was ready for the size of the expansion that was about to take place. In an attempt to catch up in the television ratings race that was happening throughout the country, the WAC attempted a TV market power grab. The WAC extended invitations to three schools from the newly disbanded conference (Rice, Texas Christian, and Southern Methodist) along with two schools from the Big West (San Jose State and Nevada Las Vegas) and one school from the Missouri Valley Conference (Tulsa). These new teams brought in the Bay Area, Houston, Dallas, and Las Vegas TV markets.

Rice University basketball coach Willis Wilson stated to the Deseret News on April 23, 1994, that being in the WAC would provide a level playing field for his team for the first time because of all the sanctions that the old Southwest Conference had a tendency to accrue from the NCAA. These feelings of excitement to be included into the new WAC was a common theme among the incoming schools after being abandoned by or unhappy in their old conferences. However, the feelings did not extend to the longstanding members.

As pointed out by the Chicago Tribune, the new WAC had 16 teams compared to 12 in the next largest collegiate conference. These 16 teams covered four time zones, 4,000 miles, and nine states. This caused a strain on all of the existing members of the WAC to try to accommodate the sheer time and energy it took to travel to all of the new schools in the conference. With the increased stress of the expanded league school officials started to doubt if this was the best choice. In a May 27, 1998, article published in The Salt Lake Tribune, President Bernie Machen said, “I asked myself: ‘How do we fit into this organization? Is this the best place for the University of Utah to be for the future?’”

WAC

The Western Athletic Conference, formed in 1962, was successful for more than three decades.

With the expansion of the WAC, it was no longer possible to play everyone in a season. To fix this the conference came up with a revolutionary idea to have quadrants that would swap divisions every other year. This caused several long-standing rivalries to be split up. As described by Jeff Call in BYU Magazine, the loss of familiar teams on the schedule was a vocalized cause for unrenewed season tickets. Losing rivalries and tickets caused more tension between the older teams that were no longer playing in rivalry games every year, and the new teams that were geographically far away from the older schools. After two years of awkward quadrants, a revamp of the divisions/conference was a necessity.

According to Patrick Kinahan of The Salt Lake Tribune, athletic directors of the conference voted during the last week of April 1998 to disband the use of quadrants and split the conference into two separate divisions. Their vote passed 13-3 and was scheduled to be passed on to the presidents of each school, who would then vote among themselves the following month. However, the dissatisfaction of the older schools was simply too much. BYU athletic director Rondo Fehlberg told Joe Baird of The Salt Lake Tribune, “The problem was, nobody could come up with a way to say, ‘Here’s how it’s going to get better.’ All we could see were the costs going up and the revenues staying flat.” (“BYU, Utah”)

Spearheaded by the two Utah schools, the presidents of Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, Utah, and Wyoming met at the Denver International Airport two weeks before the scheduled vote of divisions to find a new solution. The answer? Create a new conference again. Eight schools in total decided to split from the WAC. They notified the NCAA of their intention to form what would eventually be known as the Mountain West Conference (MWC) taking effect on June 30, 1999. (Edward) The eight defecting schools were: Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, Nevada Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah, and Wyoming.

After the abrupt rupture of the WAC many doubted how long the conference could survive. In the aftermath, Darren Wilcox of the Daily Universe said, “The only question remaining is how long the WAC can survive with leftovers. Sure, throw them in the microwave oven, stir them up a bit and they may look appetizing. They may even smell delicious. But they are leftovers just the same.” The leftover teams did lack an athletic prowess that was taken to the new conference. Due to this defect in arguably the most important trait of an athletic conference, many, including Joe Baird of The Salt Lake Tribune, theorized that the new WAC would require expansion and possibly include Utah State on the short list. (“WAC Defection”) Despite local support, Utah State University was not included in the first expansion after the split, citing market size as the cause for dismissal.

After being in the shadows on the national stage, the WAC attempted to expand the league to an unheard-of 16-team league. The loss of rivalry games paired with more difficult logistics to accommodate the size of the league ultimately resulted in concerned and unhappy members. Taking the lead, both BYU and Utah sought to rid themselves of these concerns and decided to create a league of their own, thus removing the league that they had helped create from the state of Utah.

Today, 19 years after their split from the WAC into the MWC, both BYU and Utah find themselves yet again in different conferences. BYU left for an independent football bid and landed in the West Coast Conference for all other sports. Utah accepted an invitation to the Pacific Athletic Conference. The WAC found its way back into Utah by way of an eight-year stint with Utah State from 2005 to 2013. Currently, Utah Valley University is among its full members. The WAC has acted as a steppingstone for three universities in Utah, and while all three have gone on to bigger and better opportunities, the conference still stands as a symbol of opportunity for student athletes across the western United States.

Alex Pagoaga is a senior at The University of Utah, majoring in journalism.

Sources

John McFarland, “SMU, TCU, Rice Ecstatic to be in Expanded WAC,” Deseret News, April 23, 1994.

Dick Rosetta, “Expansion Gamble Will Make WAC Bigger,” The Salt Lake Tribune, April 20, 1994, C1.

Darren Wilcox, “WAC leftovers won’t survive alone,” The Daily Universe, May 27, 1998.

James Edward, “Utes Seceding From WAC,” The Daily Utah Chronicle, May 27, 1998, 9.

Joe Baird, “WAC Defection Might Open a Spot for Utah State,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 27, 1998, C6.

Joe Baird, “BYU, Utah Make a ‘Bold Move’ – Abandon the WAC,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 27, 1998, C1.

Patrick Kinahan, “WAC Collapses Under Its Own Weight,” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 27, 1998, A1.

Stephen Nidetz, “8 Schools Defect From WAC to Form League Of Their Own,” The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1998.

“Another Wacky Move?” The Salt Lake Tribune, May 28, 1998, A10.

Call, Jeff. “The Great Divide: BYU and Seven Others Leave WAC.” Brigham Young Magazine, Fall 1998. http://bit.ly/2qfSYZE

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