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The Rise And Fall Of The Western Athletic Conference

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Boise State's triumph against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl turned out to be a last-gasp headliner for the WAC. Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images.
Boise State's triumph against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl turned out to be a last-gasp headliner for the WAC. Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images.

In April 1963, Phil Graham, Washington Post publisher, delivered a speech to the overseas correspondents of Newsweek: "So let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing every week a first rough draft of history…”

If Graham was right about journalists crafting “the first rough draft,” then those of us covering college football are penning a version of the sport’s history that can only be described as forgetful. 

On July 1, we discussed the official moves in the latest round of conference expansion and realignment. We discussed what conferences came out on top and what new rivalries would form.  

When it was all said and done, the Western Athletic Conference, replete with 60 years of history and a national championship to its credit, issued its final death rattle and faded away. Hardly anybody bothered to show up to the funeral.

Unlike the Big East, which simply rebranded itself into the American Athletic Conference to better reflect the mid-major conference it has become, the WAC has ceased all football operations. Its history is scattered over the Pac 12, Mountain West, Big 12, Conference USA and Sun Belt

The WAC may have died as a patchwork conference of low-end mid-majors spread across two-thirds of the country, but it wasn’t always that way. It’s important to remember what it was. It’s important to remember the current landscape of college football was built on the back of a now-deceased conference that deserved a much better end.

The Early Years

The WAC came into existence by doing to the Border and Skyline conferences what the MWC would do to the WAC years later: It pillaged them of all of their marquee teams. In 1962, BYU, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming left the Skyline while Arizona and Arizona State fled the Border. Other schools including Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State were involved in some of the formative meetings before electing to join the Pac 8.

The Arizona schools dominated the WAC early, winning seven out of nine conference championships between 1969 and 1977, including ASU’s 45-38 victory over Florida State in the first-ever Fiesta Bowl.  

The Wildcats and Sun Devils packed up and moved to the Pac 8 in 1978, but the WAC responded by adding Colorado State, Texas-El Paso, San Diego State, Hawaii and Air Force to bring their total to nine teams by 1980. 

The BYU Years

In the years after the first expansion, BYU dominated by winning at least a share of the conference title every year from 1977 to 1985, but 1984 changed everything. The Cougars' offense lit up scoreboards, averaging 35.1 points per game that year en route to an undefeated regular season. The Cougars played in the Holiday Bowl and defeated Michigan, 24-17.  

Despite protests from the old guard like Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer, the AP and UPI both voted BYU as the national champion. It remains the only time a team from a non-BCS conference has won a national championship since Army in 1946.

The same year, The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of Oklahoma allowed schools to start negotiating their own television rights. The WAC’s high-octane offenses seemed primed for television and ESPN debuted its coverage with BYU’s season-opening victory over Pittsburgh. WAC games on Saturday nights remained a staple on ESPN for more than two decades.

A Bright Idea A Decade Too Soon

In 1994, new commissioner Karl Benson announced the WAC’s intention to expand to 16 teams by adding SMU, TCU, Rice, San Jose State, UNLV and Tulsa (Fresno State joined the conference in 1992).

While the idea of a 16-team super-conference seems like a great idea now, it didn’t work for Benson and the WAC 19 years ago. Travel expenses and scheduling became too much of a burden. 

Leadership put in place an ill-conceived solution of four-team quadrants, but all it did was further isolate the conference, prompting eight members to splinter off and form the MWC.

One Last Gasp

Boise State joined the WAC in 2001 and immediately became the conference bell cow. The Broncos became college football’s version of a Cinderella story when they defeated Oklahoma, 43-42, in overtime of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. BSU busted the BCS again and defeated former WAC member TCU, 17-10, at the same venue. 

But even a 2-1 record in BCS bowls couldn’t save the WAC (Georgia beat Hawaii, 41-10, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl). BSU did like many others before it and bolted for the MWC; there simply wasn’t enough money to stay. In its final year, WAC schools received just more than $100,000 for their share of TV revenue. MWC schools will get at least $1 million under their new agreement in 2013.

In the end, the WAC became little more than a waiting station for schools hoping for a bigger payday. Since 1999, 24 different schools called the WAC home. As a result, the WAC’s identity of 450-yard passing games and offenses that averaged close to 50 points a game got scattered across different conferences with more lucrative TV deals. 

It’s important to remember it wasn’t always like that. It’s important to remember the pass-happy offenses so commonplace now were often born there; that they felled BCS giants and won a national championship. It’s important to remember names like Marshall Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson and Steve Young made their mark there. It’s important to remember the WAC.

And before we carry on with the task of recording the first rough draft of history that will be the 2013 season, perhaps we need to take a moment to look back and wonder what might have been