Sports

Big Ten, SEC Should Heed this Superconference Cautionary Tale

| by Sports Nickel

By Zach Bigalke

I’ve been rolling around in my head an article about the impending advent of superconferences in college sports. (Maybe that’s why this column is two days late in arriving…)

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In the wake of the SEC deciding not to expand at this time, coupled with the growth of the Big “Ten” and the Pac-12 (easily altered from the Pac-10) and the moves around the non-AQ conferences (see: Boise State replacing Utah in the MWC, TCU’s upcoming move to the Big East, BYU’s quest for independence), this season offers a glimpse into the nascent rumblings of a movement that seems inevitable.

You can go all throughout cyberspace and telespace and radiospace and find somebody who can’t resist conjuring up their own slice of what a superconference landscape might look like. My own colleague over at BreakingTackles.com wrote a piece recently about what Texas A&M’s as-yet-unrealized bid to become an SEC member could do to the wider landscape in college football. Plenty of other writers have spouted in print and online both generally and on more specific facets of what conference expansion and realignment could do to the overall picture.

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We love manipulating things, breaking them down to the constituent parts and then putting it all back together. Coming up this weekend, some writers that I spend way too much time talking with every day will release their own draft of 16-team superconferences, six full reports on what this might look like. On the following Saturday, I will be revealing my own analysis of the viability of the conferences created in this draft on everything from expenses and revenues to marketability to geographic footprint and core competitiveness.

It sure is fun thinking about what a future landscape would look like. We all love to project a situation forward, especially when we think we are creating something that is more substantial and intelligent than that which is currently in place. But something seems to be lacking in all of this discussion — the dissenting opinion. What precisely is it that makes us believe that the superconference is a great idea? Why does it have this feeling of smack-your-forehead inevitability for so many people?

After all, we’ve been witness to the tale of growing too big for your core demographic before. We’ve already seen what happens when a conference decides to grow wholesale too fast, inorganically, merely changing in a mad attempt to adapt with the times and not get left behind. Lest history repeat itself unnoticed, let’s take a look back at the football landscape in the mid-1990s and the failed experiment that stretched from Hawaii to the Mississippi River…

The greater trend of a bygone era, one where independent programs dominated the college football landscape, saw the acceleration of its demise throughout the 1990s.

For the four remaining charter members of the Western Athletic Conference — Arizona and Arizona State left the WAC on June 30, 1978 to turn the Pac-8 Conference into the current configuration we know as the Pac-10 — the 1990s represented a time of great change. As conferences recognized their marketability to networks and as bowls recognized their significance in deciding for a nation of football zealots who was the nationwide champion of the sport, the ability for teams to survive outside the conference structure dissipated.

The landscape was not that different than the turbulent late 1950s and early 1960s in football. It was this post-war era which saw the formation of the major conferences which most closely resemble the current configuration of college football. The Western Athletic Conference was borne from the disbanding of two conferences (the Border and Skyline Conferences).

And that conference landscape would be consolidated once again in the mid-1990s as the next wave of realignment took root. The Bowl Alliance saw teams jumping to join conferences, while those conferences sought the most storied programs to improve their position. Six teams were admitted into the WAC to begin play in 1996, causing the conference to balloon to sixteen schools. With so many teams encompassing the Western Athletic Conference, the league divided itself into four tiers which would then separate into two divisions.

Perhaps it was just a foolhardy system from the start. As Karl Benson — then as now the WAC’s commissioner, who has filled the same post for the past eighteen years of turbulence — candidly laid it out in a June 2011 interview with Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel, “Sixteen schools, nine states, four thousand miles, four time zones, no limits. Some thought it was doomed to fail immediately. It was a two-year venture and it failed from within.”

What was this conglomeration that was destined to fail? Why were teams lumped together over such a far-flung territory? What forces led to this expansion, and what forces led to the conference’s demise? First you need to look at the teams in question to understand the picture of what would ultimately happen…

By 1996, four of the six charter members of the conference still plugged along as WAC members. BYU had enjoyed the most success to this point, winning the mythical 1984 national championship and churning out NFL-caliber talent throughout the next decade. They would be the marquee name in the list.

Utah had just come off a three-year stretch where they had won two out of every three games (24-12 from 1993-1995), and were the Cougars’ natural in-state rival as the dueled annually in the Holy War. Wyoming had stumbled out of the Paul Roach era in the late-1980s and was starting to find its bearings under future Purdue coach Joe Tiller.

And even in New Mexico, optimism pervaded the fan base. Despite not having won a WAC championship since 1964, hopes were high thanks to the team’s steady improvement since 1992 under the watch of a young Dennis Franchione.

In these four teams the conference had good balance, with BYU serving as the upper crust, Utah and Wyoming comprising the middle class and New Mexico playing the role of perpetual minnow turned burgeoning contender.

Colorado State, who along with UTEP joined the conference in its 1968 expansion, looked like the true class of the conference. Coming off successive WAC championships, the Rams under Sonny Lubick had taken the team to two straight Holiday Bowls and was just a year removed from finishing in the top 15 in the nation. Everyone was looking for the Colorado State showdown with BYU, the matchup most anticipated in the first conference championship game in the league’s history in 1996.

San Diego State and Hawaii, admitted in 1978 and 1979 respectively, had differing dreams heading into the season. Ted Tollner, the coach who led USC to victory over Ohio State in the 1985 Rose Bowl, had taken over the Aztecs in 1994, executing a four-win turnaround in 1995 after his inaugural season in San Diego ended 4-7. Hawaii, who was just three years removed from winning the conference at 11-2, had fired Bob Wagner and was embarking on a new course with Bill Walsh acolyte Fred von Appen.

In 1980, the Air Force Academy had given up independence for a spot in the WAC, growing the conference to the nine-team configuration that would be familiar throughout its progressive rise to prominence in the 1980s. The final member pre-superconference, Fresno State, would move up from the Big West after proving they’d outgrown the lower-profile division with a 10-2 season in 1991. In their first WAC season in 1992, their 9-4 record would be good enough for a date with USC in the Freedom Bowl; the Bulldogs would win 24-7.

With coaching firepower and an expanding national profile, the WAC had developed a reputation as one of the most exciting offensive conferences in the nation by the early 1990s. The conference had placed at least two teams in both the AP and USA Today end-of-season polls in three of the previous five years leading up to the expansion — BYU and Air Force in 1991; Hawaii and Fresno State in 1992; Utah and Colorado State and BYU in 1994.

With such a strong footprint as it was, encompassing some of the strongest mid-major programs in football, why did the WAC decide that 1996 was the right time to expand beyond its wildest dreams?

To be quite blunt, the opportunity was there. The Southwest Conference, bastion of Texas football, had ceased to exist as the Big 8 merged with four of the SWC schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech — to create the Big XII and position itself for a spot among the elite conferences. That left the rest of the conference’s schools scrambling for position. Benson and the WAC pounced, scooping up Rice and SMU and TCU to add to their Texas profile beyond El Paso.

And as the Big West Conference expanded itself, bringing up more I-AA programs to the top division, several of its schools — San Jose State and UNLV — both went looking for bigger and better competition to play, fearing that they would be turned to big fish in a too-little pond if they were to stay. (The Big West would eventually cancel football operations in the conference in 2000.) The last addition, Tulsa, was finally joining a conference after a decade of independent existence.

With six more schools in the fold, the total was now sixteen teams. From Texas to Hawaii, the league stretched thousands of miles across the western United States in all directions. Because of such widespread, far-flung outposts on the schedule each season, the teams would require a lot of money to make such a configuration competitive without bankrupting member institutions.

But that money would not be forthcoming. Despite waging an annual conference championship live on ABC, the big-time television deals being extended around to more established conferences like the SEC and Big Ten and Pac-10 would not materialize for the WAC. And a perception of weakness on the part of pollsters doomed it before it could ever really grow and mature into a viable big-time conference.

The 1996 season saw BYU and Wyoming locked on a collision course all season long. The Cougars, thanks to the efforts of senior QB Steve Sarkisian (who would end the season with over 4000 yards as the top-rated passer among all I-A schools), had only lost once, early in the season in Seattle against the eventual Pac-10 runner-up Washington Huskies. Wyoming, with Tiller’s spread offense carving up the thin high-plains air of Laramie, won their first nine games of the season and were threatening the establishment with every win until San Diego State pulled off the home upset in an early-November Thursday night nationwide broadcast.

BYU and Wyoming were both hunting for the eyes of the pollsters. It was unlikely that Wyoming would attract the requisite attention to earn a Bowl Alliance bid; but the Cougars, under the legendary shadow of stalwart head coach LaVell Edwards, had risen to number six in the nation. Undefeated in conference play, they played what still remains the longest schedule in college-football history. The WAC Championship would be their fourteenth game of the season, their 12-1 record on the line.

Edwards sought an elusive Bowl Alliance bid and a chance to put another feather in his cap to compliment the school’s 1984 national championship. In his twenty-fifth season at BYU, Edwards was hungry for another taste of the national spotlight. BYU had missed a bowl game for the first time in eighteen years in 1995. The WAC Championship, the Cougars hoped, would serve as an hors d’oeuvre  on the path toward a greater feast onward to begin 1997.

Joe Tiller led the Cowboys into the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl in Las Vegas for the first WAC Championship — for one last time as their head coach. Purdue was calling for someone to restore the legacy of Mollenkopf, and Tiller had been chosen as the most recent man for the task. Both BYU and Wyoming played inspired, as they knew there may a big payoff at the end. Lose… well, let’s just say to lose in that day and age meant for a smaller school not merely a bowl game on Christmas Eve rather than New Year’s Day but the loss of that postseason treat altogether.

The first half was dominated by the boys from Brigham Young.  Ethan Pochman hit his first field goal of the day from thirty yards out in the first quarter, putting the Cougars up 3-0. The lines dug in deep, a defensive battle springing from the soil. The Silver Bowl, which many had expected to be merely a launch pad for long bombs, turned instead into a venue for trench warfare.

Most observers had expected a shootout, with both teams boasting prolific offenses. BYU was led by the nation’s top-rated quarterback, Steve Sarkisian. Coached by college quarterback guru Norm Chow — the same Norm Chow who led Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart to Heisman trophies — Sarkisian had dominated the air, finding a multitude of receivers and backs throughout the season. Wyoming, meanwhile, boasted the nation’s number-one team passing offense, with Biletnikoff Award winner Marcus Harris at the head of the receiving corps catching Josh Wallwork’s tosses in Tiller’s spread.

Yet the game was still a low-scoring battle. BYU had the better run of things in the first half, finally finding the endzone in the second quarter with tailback Brian McKenzie rushing the final eleven yards after a long drive down the field. Pochman would add another field goal to go with the extra point, putting the Cougars up 13-0 at the half. Wyoming appeared to be staggering.

But then the defense, which had been the one unit which was functioning on something nearing all cylinders that night, awakened the entire team. Jay Jenkins swooped a BYU fumble early in the third quarter, running twenty-two yards and putting Wyoming within a touchdown of their rival. The Cowboys had come out of the intermission with a vengeance.

Cory Wedel added a twenty-yard field goal as the third quarter wound down. Wyoming scored seventeen unanswered points as David Saraf caught a Wallwork pass for seven yards and the go-ahead score. Chad Lewis caught his own touchdown from Sarkisian; but then Saraf, unnoticed with BYU keying in on Harris, caught his second touchdown of the night from fourteen yards out. A two-point conversion succeeded, and Wyoming was up by five.

The next drive for Wyoming saw the Cowboys pinned against their own endzone. One, two, three plays failed. Punter Aron Langley came onto the field — but he wasn’t about to punt. Tiller instructed Langley to walk out the back of the endzone, consciously taking a safety rather than risking a blocked punt for seven. Langley did as he was asked, putting BYU within three points. The free kick from the twenty floated, and BYU took over at their own forty-yard line.

Sarkisian got his team into position. As the clock expired, Pochman hit his third of the night to send the championship game to overtime. BYU won the toss, sending Wyoming’s offense onto the field first. On first and ten from the twenty-five, Josh Wallwork was sacked. Trying to get the first down, the Cowboys then threw two incomplete passes. Cory Wedel came on to try to be the hero once again for Wyoming. But from forty-seven yards, Wedel pushed the ball wide left. It was now up to BYU to score. Any points and the Cougars would be in the hunt still for an Alliance bid.

LaVell Edwards simply had Sarkisian hand the ball off to Brian McKenzie three times. The first rush yielded five yards, the second one four more. The third attempt, on third-and-one, was stuffed by the Cowboy defense. Pochman came out to attempt a thirty-two yard field goal. His fourth attempt of the day became his fourth completion as Pochman did what Wedel simply couldn’t from fifteen yards further — split the uprights to deliver his team a conference title.

The Cowboys went 10-2 that season. But not even BYU, with a 13-1 record, strong schedule and conference championship could bust their way through the gates being put up by the forerunner to the BCS. The Cougars would go on to a fifteenth game that season, winning a tight contest in the Cotton Bowl against #17 Kansas State 19-15.

Without both teams in a bowl game — and without that $8 million payday that would have come to the conference had the Bowl Alliance taken #5 BYU and put them in the Fiesta, Orange or Sugar Bowl instead of leaving them to the Cotton — the money problems accelerated. Colorado State and New Mexico would not threaten the establishment in 1997 when they squared off in the second WAC Championship Game. And by the time Air Force defeated BYU in 1998, the wheels of the BCS were already turning into place… without mid-majors like the WAC in tow.

These perceptions led to the splintering of the remaining charter members and the oldest WAC members to form the the Mountain West. Ever since the two leagues have been pliable, absorbing new members. The MWC, by and large, has treated the WAC as its feeder system. The enmity which bubbled under the surface during the three-year reign of the WAC superconference continues on to this day.

The original superconference was doomed by two key issues:

  1. GEOGRAPHIC FOOTPRINT: Because the conference was spread out across four time zones and thousands of miles, travel costs for the member schools were exorbitant compared to the other premier conferences of the era. This spread-out configuration also prevented the league from gaining any sort of unified identity that would better sell to television networks, leading to the second problem…
  2. MONEY: The conference simply didn’t have enough of it. Television revenues stalled, and pollsters’ perceptions about the lack of competitive depth only served to hamper that development. There were certainly good teams in the conference, consistent teams that proved they could compete with the larger conferences. But perception outweighed reality, and the dearth of both TV revenue and big-time bowl payouts coupled with the cost of competing in the league made it near impossible to sustain…

So perhaps another superconference would work. But is it necessarily a guarantee that a Pac-12 extension into the Bible Belt would enhance rather than water down its distinctive conference traits? Does the Big East reaching toward Texas to nab the Horned Frogs augur well for a league that is based on the eastern seaboard? Should the SEC start looking further westward and northward, would schools like Texas A&M and Missouri really enhance the brand — or take it out of its comfort zone?

Surely there would be more money available to the SEC or Pac-16 or B1G were they to expand further. But would it truly be in the best interests of these respective conferences? Reaching for organic growth is one thing… growing too big, too fast and too far out of the footprint can take down even the biggest of institutions. Hubris defines the fall…

Get more great college football analysis over at Global Turnstile.