May 26, 1998, 25 years ago today: Two seasons of a bloated, unwieldy 16-team WAC is more than enough for administrators at BYU, Utah, Colorado State, Wyoming, Air Force, New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV.Citing financial concerns and the erosion of rivalries, the schools announced they were breaking away to form a new league in 1999. It would be called the Mountain West Conference. Left behind were Fresno State, Hawaii, Rice, San Jose State, SMU, TCU, Tulsa and UTEP.
The chaos began in 1996, when the old Southwest Conference was dissolved. The WAC scooped up the schools that hadn’t been picked up by bigger leagues: Rice, SMU and TCU. But it didn’t stop there. The WAC poached San Jose State and UNLV from the Big West and Tulsa from the Missouri Valley. Suddenly the conference had expanded from 10 schools to 16 and stretched 3,900 miles from Hawaii to Oklahoma. The WAC created two divisions, with two “quadrants” in each division. Trying to schedule in the WAC’s four quadrants that seemed to be in a state of flux frustrated the mutineers, especially the old-school WAC members. And travel costs were unmanageable.
So the trickle-down effect began. The wounded WAC invited Nevada to join in 2000, But TCU left for Conference USA the following year. When the Big West dropped football, Boise State moved to the WAC in 2001 (along with independent Louisiana Tech). The Broncos, whose football program had cracked the top 25 for three straight years by 2004, tried to join the Mountain West but was nosed out by TCU, which joined the MW in 2005. The resulting churn saw Rice, SMU, Tulsa and UTEP bolt for Conference USA, and that’s when Idaho, New Mexico State and Utah State got their WAC invites.
The Mountain West, a perennial thorn in the WAC’s side, grabbed Boise State in 2011, Fresno State, Hawaii (football only) and Nevada in 2012 and San Jose State and Utah State in 2013—and that was the end of WAC football. In the 10 years since, the WAC has had a whopping 19 other members—and I may have missed somebody. The WAC has cobbled together a football-only group in conjunction with the ASUN Conference that started play at the FCS level in 2021, with hopes of getting to the FBS by 2030 or so.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)