How possible BCS conference realignment might affect the top tier of NCAA championship football
The offseason for Division I college football fans is a usually long, arduous wait between spring practice and summer practice. This year, because of the actions of a few commissioners belonging to rich conferences, the offseason for fans of FCS schools has been anything but boring.
Take the example of Montana, one of the crown jewels of FCS football and perfect example of what sensible, championship-caliber football is all about.
The Grizzlies have enjoyed a level of dominance in the Big Sky that any school would drool about. They’ve won 10 straight Big Sky titles and a NCAA championship. The last time they didn’t qualify for postseason play was in 1992 - the year when many of the Griz’ incoming freshmen were born.
During that span, some Griz fans have bandied about thoughts of moving to FBS - out of the Big Sky into a non-BCS conference such as the WAC. But those thoughts seemed far-fetched – until the recent tremors started coming from the world of FBS.
In Part Two of this series on how the FCS landscape could change due to the actions of FBS, we’ll look at what might happen out West if conferences such as the WAC start looking for members.
The Big Ten has not been the only driver of football conference shuffling this offseason. Another school that has been the subject of much speculation is a former FCS champion – and former member of the Big Sky Conference, the home of the Griz.
Folks these days think of Boise State as “the big, bad, blue-turfed team that helped open up the BCS to the little guy.” But it has a rich playoff history as a member of the Big Sky conference, too.
In 1980, led by the “four horsemen” of quarterback Joe Aliotti, fullback David Hughes, and halfbacks Cedric Minter and Terry Zahner, they would have a magical season knocking off two I-A schools during the regular season (Utah of the WAC and Cal State-Fullerton of the Big West) and upending two all-time legendary coaches in the playoffs.
Bronco head Coach Jim Criner outdueled Grambling State head coach Eddie Robinson in the semifinals, winning on a fourth-quarter flea-flicker to outlast the Tigers 14-9 in a heavy fog. Criner would then win the championship game over Eastern Kentucky head coach Roy Kidd in dramatic fashion, driving 80 yards in less than a minute to score a touchdown to beat the Colonels 31-29.
In 1996, Boise State would move its football team from the Big Sky to the Big West Conference, which moved into FBS just as other former FCS schools such as Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech were moving out (to the Sun Belt and Conference USA, respectively) in a conference shuffle. The Great West seemed like a good fit for Bronco fans, where they won a couple of Great West titles and appeared in a few minor bowls.
But 2000 would mark the year that Boise State would cause the Big West Conference to discontinue sponsorship of football. Its decision to depart to the WAC would cause the rest of the Big West – which now did not have enough members sponsoring football - to go scrambling for the Sun Belt and Conference USA, where Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech had bolted five years before.
At that time, the WAC, oddly enough, had just undergone a crisis. Its ill-fated decision to expand to 16 teams and stretch halfway across the country caused college presidents to fret about huge travel budgets and wondering how disparate their institutions were. That along with a scheduling nightmare that many folks thought unworkable (with 16 teams, a true champion really couldn’t be crowned easily even with “pods” and a championship game), eight members broke off to form their own athletic conference called the Mountain West Conference. Desperate for members, the WAC looked around for other members – and Boise State accepted.
Fast forward to 2010. Boise State, once again, is thinking about abandoning an athletic conference and putting its former home in jeopardy. Heavy rumors have it looking at joining the Mountain West Conference, and the WAC once again is rumored to be looking for replacements should that occur. One of those schools in the center of such rumors is Montana.
Through the years, Montana administrators have consistently tamped down thoughts from excited fans that they should consider a jump to FBS football.
“At this point, it’s just not a priority for us, a priority for me,” Montana athletic director Jim O’Day told The Grizzoulian in 2008. “Sometimes you kind of wish you had the answers, but there’s no reason for us to do anything right now because of our [financial] health and where we’re at right now.”
The Griz, with their Big Sky championships, storied rivalry with Montana State and playoff success, have made them one of the healthiest FCS programs financially. Montana routinely sells out 23,000-seat Washington-Grizzly stadium, and it has averaged more than eight home games a year thanks to its playoff appearances. It has a network of Montana TV stations that carry all of its games on basic network TV. By all accounts, it has a great thing going in FCS.
A move to FBS would mean it would no longer enjoy so many home football games. Its lucrative TV Montana monopoly probably would be brought into the WAC, drying up an important revenue stream for the school. Furthermore, if it joins the WAC, it would then have to make expensive trips annually to Hawai’i for conference games, and not just in football. There would be less revenue and more travel costs.
More importantly, the rivalry with Montana State would be in jeopardy. Not only have they played each other 109 times in football, it’s an intrastate rivalry that defines the residents of the state that few rivalries can match. If you live in Montana, you're a Cat, or you're a Griz. That’s it. Breaking that rivalry up isn’t just about stopping a series; it’s about an essential part of being a Montanan. Something important could be lost forever.
That means a lot to people who could block such a move to FBS. “University president George Dennison would have to approve; then it would go to the Montana Board of Regents,” the Grizzoulian reported in 2008. “It’s very possible the Board of Regents would turn down any move unless it included Montana State. O’Day said he would be ‘very surprised’ if the Board of Regents and state Legislature allowed the Griz to move up without the Bobcats. O’Day said he believes the state would like to see the two teams playing in the same conference and division, where their century-old rival would mean more.”
Montana State is a healthy program in its own right at the FCS level. It's been Big Sky co-champions three times in the last decade, and it also has won a national championship (1984). But its stadium is smaller, and the Bobcats haven’t had the same level of success – in the Big Sky or the FCS playoffs - that Montana has had through the years. The benefits of the WAC adding Montana are clear - with its constant sellouts and rabid fan base. But the benefits of adding the Griz and Montana State to the WAC are much less so.
But Montana and Montana State are not the only teams wondering whether the WAC might invite them to join. A Montana and Montana State package deal isn't the only possible invitation from the WAC.
Aside from start-up FCS schools such as Texas-San Antonio and Lamar from the Southland conference (which have voiced their desire to play in FBS), there are four teams that play FCS-level football and have associate sports in the WAC that might be the target of possible WAC expansion rumors.
Of those four, only one has a facility that is ready to play in the WAC immediately: Sacramento State, with its 22,000-seat Hornet stadium that has been the site of the I-AA championship game in the past. (Ironically, one of the championship games it hosted was the Boise State/Eastern Kentucky final in 1980.) Another, Northern Arizona, has a 16,000-seat domed stadium that is similar to fellow WAC member Idaho’s home for football, the Kibbie Dome. (The other two, San Diego and Southern Utah, have FCS programs but don’t have the facilities to consider a move up.)
The Hornets and Lumberjacks play in the Big Sky Conference, and both have hefty travel budgets to travel to Montana, Eastern Washington and Idaho State for conference games. Might either consider a move to the WAC if invited, and swap plane trips to Missoula for plane trips to Hawai’i?
Northern Arizona could gain a somewhat close opponent in New Mexico State, and it would enjoy more trips to California to play San Jose State and Fresno State.
For Sacramento State, which would gain nearby trips to Fresno State and San Jose State for conference games, it’s particularly intriguing.
“Not only could we create excitement among our fans about matchups like the Fresnos, the San Joses and the Nevadas, but fans of those schools would also be able to drive in and attend those contests,” Sacramento State athletic director Terry Wanless told the Bozeman (Mont.) Chronicle. “That could possibly give us a huge return investment on that decision (to move up).”
Another Big Sky school without any prior WAC ties has been mentioned around WAC expansion circles as well: Portland State. Though the Vikings never have captured the attention of the young, fast-growing Oregon city the way that the Oregon Ducks or Oregon State Beavers have, they have a converted baseball stadium that is WAC ready (PGE Park, football capacity 23,000), and theoretically a share of a large Western television market.
In addition, two other teams that play FCS football in the Great West Football Conference – Cal Poly and UC-Davis – also have seen their names mentioned in terms of WAC expansion, too.
According to a report from the San Luis Obispo Tribune, one famous Mustang alumnus – none other than legendary NFL coach John Madden – mentioned his support for Cal Poly to play “old rivals” such as San Jose State and Fresno State.
Most interesting might be the reuniting of Cal Poly, UC Davis and Sacramento State under one conference all at the same time. The three schools have good rivalries, especially UC Davis and Sacramento State, which have played in the “Causeway Classic” since 1954.
“With any potential athletic alignment, one of our big goals with football is let’s play people that excite our students,” Cal Poly Alison Cone told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, “who are more like us, who our alumni have heard of. If you want to make a change in conferences, whether it’s to the WAC or somewhere else, you have to make sure you’re putting your university in a good position to have success, and you want your alumni to be proud about what we’re doing.”
At least one paper has mentioned the “California Three” as serious candidates for the WAC should they lose one or more members. The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee reported that Karl Benson, commissioner of the WAC said Sacramento State, Cal Poly and UC Davis would be “good fits” if the league lost one or two members.
What might be a potential pitfall to these, or any, expansion plans? The biggest issue might not come from the world of athletics but the world of academics.
Oregon’s budget numbers have recently been called “unsustainable” by a budget cabinet appointed by state governor Ted Kulongoski. Furthermore, ballot measures have forced education spending away from higher education and toward primary schooling, forcing tuitions to skyrocket. The recent budget might promise even more pain on higher education.
But that’s nothing in comparison to the five alarm blazes raging in the state houses of Arizona and California.
Last year, Arizona’s Legislature had to combine massive school layoffs with mortgaging space in the state Capitol to raise enough money to keep the lights on. In light of this, cuts proposed to higher education in Arizona have been brutal. Northern Arizona president John Haeger has brought up the possibility that his school might be forced to raise tuitions immensely while reducing the number of course offerings should cuts such as this get voted into law.
California’s education system has been ground zero in its budget woes, too. In just the last two years, California state college students were slammed with a 20 percent rise in student fees to go with a workforce reduction in teachers in an effort to balance the state’s budget.
At Cal Poly and UC Davis, the recent trend has not been to add athletics but to drop them. Just last year, the Mustangs dropped two sports (men’s and women’s tennis) and the Aggies dropped four (wrestling, men’s swimming/diving, men’s indoor track and women’s rowing). And at other schools in the California public university system, there are signs of trouble: even Cal-Berkeley is rumored to be considering dropping sports to make ends meet.
"I think you're going to see more of this activity go on because of the economy and because of fewer resources being available to college athletics," said UC Davis athletic director Greg Warzecka, to the Fresno Bee. "For the future, what I anticipate is that there will be fewer and fewer colleges that can support a very large intercollegiate athletic program that offers numerous sports."
According to UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi, the elimination of four programs will save the Aggies $2.9 million through the next three years and will allow their athletic department to approach fiscal solvency.
Would a splashy move to the WAC, with millions of dollars in new spending, be the right message to send for schools in these states?
In a world where political winds are blowing in the direction of fiscal responsibility, it might be difficult to convince Board of Regents and state Legislatures to make the jump to the increased costs – and uncertain benefits – of the FBS.
There’s also the other large issuer in terms of a team moving to FBS – that conferences that are now considered FBS might be reclassified.
This week, the Mountain West Conference voted not to expand the conference after a Monday deadline. "Due to the uncertainty in the intercollegiate landscape, the board did not make a decision to expand at the present time," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson declared. "The Mountain West will continue to monitor developments ... and prepare for potential scenarios."
While it might seem like a rejection of expansion, Big Sky commissioner Jon Kasper told the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune that it was "too early to tell" what the ramifications were. "I don't read too much into what happened — or didn't happen — today,” he said. “People out West are going to wait for the bigger conferences like the Pac-10 and Big 12 for movement."
A few days later, the opening salvo was indeed volleyed. Colorado, a former member of the Big 12 Conference, formally announced its intentions to join the Pac-10, with Nebraska widely rumored to announce that it would join the Big Ten in the next few days.
The Pac-10 is unlikely to stop there. Rumor has it that more Big 12 schools, led by Texas, also would move to the Pac-10 to make it into the Pac-16. That would change the balance of power in the West forever. It could force the WAC and Mountain West to expand to stay relevant. Or the Big 12 and the Pac-10 could try to poach Mountain West schools – Utah, BYU or maybe Colorado State – causing the Mountain West to consider raiding the WAC to replenish its depleted membership.
This also might explain the WAC’s sudden interest in the three California schools. With five (albeit lesser-known) California schools, it could plausibly be the college football counterpoint to the Pac-12, Pac-16 or however it all shakes out.
That is, of course, if the NCAA doesn’t choose to reclassify the WAC as an FCS conference in the wake of such a move.
The NCAA has had a rule on the books saying in order for a team to remain FBS, it needs to average an attendance of more than 15,000 during a rolling two-year period.
Last year, three members of the WAC didn't even average this modest goal: Idaho (11,479 per game), Utah State (13,131) and New Mexico State (14,412). And excluding Fresno State, Hawai’i and Boise State, the rest of the WAC averaged well less than 20,000 fans per game.
If the Mountain West decided to take all three WAC schools that average more than 30,000 in attendance and the WAC replaces them with Cal Poly, UC Davis and Sacramento State, it could easily have a conference that averages less than 20,000 fans per football game.
How could a WAC conference with that membership be able to keep up with a possible Pac-16 whose top teams would be averaging nearly 100,000 fans per game? A 12-team Mountain West might even have a hard time competing, but there is at least a larger fan base among most of the schools of that conference. It’s much harder to justify in a WAC with several schools that don’t have facilities to host 30,000 fans. Even if Montana and Montana State joined the WAC, it wouldn’t be enough to bring that number up.
It wouldn’t be hard, either, for the NCAA to change the rules to force a WAC rethink for FCS football as a conference. Just double the current attendance requirement to 30,000 fans (and enforce it), or force a minimum amount of athletic spending to sponsor FBS football.
A new bar for FBS membership might be a worthwhile item for Division I as well, forcing some schools to cut costs when their athletic departments are hemorrhaging money trying to keep up with conferences that are awash with TV money.
Essentially, the WAC is looking at FCS to replenish its conference precisely because it knows it's in trouble. Boise State has shown no loyalty to the conference, so the WAC needs to take rumors of its exit from the conference seriously.
And the WAC will put on a dog-and-pony show for FCS schools saying “you could be the next Boise State,” and mentioning the Broncos’ bowl success. It won’t be mentioning the schools below the 15,000 NCAA minimum or the fact that without its three attendance leaders it looks a lot more like an FCS conference than an FBS conference.
But schools listening to its song might want to wait and see what happens – not just with the Big 12 and Pac-10, but the NCAA as well. The actions of the big-money conferences could mean that the WAC will be a deeply changed conference at the end of the day – if it exists at all.
While there’s been a lot of action out West lately, it’s not like the East has exactly been quiet about conference shifting as well. In the next installment, we’ll turn East and see what might be happening there that might have even more of an impact on FCS football than anything the Pac-10 does.