Lessons Not To Be Learned From: The Super-WAC

Believe it or not, this conference isn't exactly comparable to the Big Ten.

I’ll start this off by saying I actually like the work Andy Staples does over at SI, and that I understand it’s a very slow time of the year for college football and there is one story (Big Ten expansion) that is currently dominating the headlines. I must say I was pretty curious to see where Staples was going with an article titled, “What the Big Ten can learn from failed 16-team WAC experiment“.

As it turns out, the Big Ten can learn about as much as you can expect from the WAC’s insane idea to expand to a 16-team, four-quadrant, five-time-zone-spanning super-conference in 1995: practically nothing.

Staples goes through every reason why the WAC didn’t work out in its bloated form. How many of these are applicable to the Big Ten’s current expansion ideas in today’s era of college football? Let’s take a look.

1. Geography

So it was for the 16-member WAC, which spanned nine states and five time zones. The 16 schools weren’t exactly peer institutions, either. “We had six privates and 10 publics,” Benson said. “We ranged from 2,500-enrollment Rice with average SAT of whatever to California state system schools with 25,000, 30,000 or 40,000.”

With the exception of Northwestern, the Big Ten schools are large state institutions. The eight-state footprint is geographically contiguous, and unless the Big Ten pulls a shocker and lands Texas, all the expansion candidates mentioned — all large state institutions aside from Syracuse — would allow the league to maintain a contiguous footprint. And even if that footprint stretched 1,065 miles from Syracuse, N.Y., to Lincoln, Neb., travel between the two farthest-flung schools would seem like a Sunday drive compared to the 3,826-mile journey from Tulsa to Hawaii in the 16-member WAC.

Alright kids, Lesson One: Don’t throw together a random collection of schools with little in common athletically or academically that spans across nine states and five time zones. I hope you’re taking notes, Mr. Delaney.

2. Television

The league would lose money on the front end, because before expansion was finalized, presidents approved a contract with ESPN/ABC that would pay the league $3.5 million a year for five years starting in 1996. That deal was designed for a 10-team league. The WAC signed another deal that would pay $1 million for the rights to the football championship game, but presidents had to accept the fact that they would lose money on the front end with the hope of a big payday when the negotiating window opened again in 2000. With the huge TV markets the league had added, WAC presidents believed they had a product they could sell easily to television networks.

That wasn’t the case.

As the ratings came in during the first year of the 16-team league, it became obvious that just because TCU was in the conference didn’t mean people in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would tune in en masse. Ditto for Rice and the Houston market and San Jose State and the Bay Area market.

Lesson Two: Don’t try to expand into an enormous conference without securing a non-idiotic TV deal first. Oh, the Big Ten has already taken care of that? They have their own network, you say? Well, then. Let’s move on.

3. Alignment

So how would a 16-team conference look? Probably not like the WAC, which employed a confusing quadrant system that separated teams into blocks of four. Quadrant one, for example, was called the “Y’all Corner” because it contained Tulsa and former Southwest Conference members Rice, Southern Methodist and TCU. In 1996 and 1997, the Y’all Corner combined with Quadrant Three (BYU, New Mexico, UTEP, Utah) to form the Mountain Division. Teams played eight conference games, three against their quadrant, four against the other quadrant in their division and one crossover game. So in 1996, BYU played everyone in quadrants one and three and also played Hawaii.

After two years, the quadrants would rotate, forming different divisions. Confused yet? So were fans. The biggest rivalries (BYU-Utah, for example) were preserved. Other long-standing series were ignored. That caused issues. “You’ve got to have some geography. You’ve got to have some history,” said Craig Thompson, the former Sun Belt commissioner hired by the WAC defectors to run the Mountain West. “Some fans saying, ‘I just hate that color.’ That’s the part of this that sometimes gets lost.”

Lesson Three: Don’t alienate the average fan by instituting rotating divisions and ignoring tradition and history in the process. This may be the one point that is actually relevant, but if the Big Ten’s expansion plan involves rotating quadrants, I’ll eat my hat.

4. Quality Teams

The problem came after BYU won the inaugural WAC title game and finished the 1996 season 13-1 and ranked No. 5 in the nation. One of the motives behind expansion was to gain more sway with bowls and possibly to gain an automatic berth in the Bowl Alliance, a precursor to the BCS. BYU seemed in line to go to the Fiesta Bowl, which was part of the Alliance. The Fiesta chose No. 7 Penn State instead, forcing BYU to accept a bid to the Cotton Bowl.

A BYU marketing professor and several students set bags of Tostitos ablaze in protest, but burning the tortilla chips made by the bowl’s title sponsor did nothing to improve the WAC’s standing. Even though it had 16 teams, it still lacked real power. To make matters worse, the league had lost out on a fat payday. WAC members were relying on the $8.5 million Fiesta Bowl payday — which would have been distributed throughout the conference and would have helped offset some financial losses. Also, the Holiday Bowl used the WAC’s expansion to escape its deal with the league. “That was the biggest thing I remember,” Edwards said. “It gave the Holiday Bowl an out.”

Eventually, the financial, scheduling and geographic issues became too much to bear. The schools that would eventually become the Mountain West broke away, leading to a contentious WAC meeting in 1998. “I remember some of us went into one room and some of us went into another,” said Richard Peck, the former New Mexico president and author. “After that, a lot of old friends didn’t want to talk.”

The issue here is not with BYU, the one consistently solid football program in the old WAC. The problem would be with the other 15 WAC squads: just one (Wyoming, #22) joined BYU in the final regular season polls. The Big Ten, which got the nod in the Fiesta Bowl over the WAC, had five teams in the final top 25, all ranked higher than Wyoming.

Lesson Four: Make sure your conference doesn’t suck.

What have we learned here? First, not every situation makes for an easy comparison to a historical precedent — sometimes you’re just sailing into uncharted waters. Second, don’t align your conference into rotating quadrants. Enjoy your weekends, everyone, and try not to read every Big Ten expansion article that makes its way onto your computer screen.

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