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Kragthorpe: So long WAC — it was fun while it lasted

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Kurt Kragthorpe

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

First published May 16 2012 11:39AM
Updated Aug 28, 2012 11:34PM

If the 2012 season serves as the end of Western Athletic Conference football, the league’s obituary will be filled with all kinds of obvious exaggerations.

The reports will describe how the league at various times covered four time zones from Hawaii to Louisiana and stretched almost from Canada to Mexico. They will say the WAC produced a national championship team, a Heisman Trophy winner and three Bowl Championship Series contestants.

The WAC will be remembered for 26 schools — more than one-fifth of the Football Bowl Subdivision membership — having belonged to it, and then being distributed among six other conferences.

Some intra-league, single-game statistics will seem even more fictional, including Scott Mitchell’s 631 passing yards for Utah, LaDainian Tomlinson’s 406 rushing yards for Texas Christian and Jay Miller’s 22 receptions for BYU.

Here lies the WAC: the most entertaining, explosive, evolving conference in college football history.

Conference administrators say the WAC is not dead yet, pointing to a continual makeover during its history with the potential of more moves. Yet after the coming season, only Idaho and New Mexico State will remain as football-playing members.

So a conference that began 50 years ago with Utah and BYU as charter members likely will conclude its football era with Utah State in its ranks. In between? Wow. There was nothing like WAC football.

Think about the flagship programs: Wyoming of the 1960s, Arizona State of the ’70s, BYU of the ’80s, Colorado State of the ’90s and Boise State of the 2000s. Or the Fiesta Bowl and the Holiday Bowl, launched with WAC affiliations, only to outgrow the league. Or BYU’s revolutionary passing offense under coach LaVell Edwards, followed by Utah’s innovations with Jim Fassel and Boise State’s schemes of Chris Petersen.

You could say nobody ever played any defense in this league, but that would not explain how San Jose State’s winning touchdown against Rice in 2004 was scored via an interception return — in a 70-63 victory. Afterward, SJSU coach Fitz Hill said, "The conventional rules of football did not apply."

That’s the WAC.

Boise State outlasted Nevada 69-67 in four overtimes in 2007. BYU (led by Ty Detmer) and San Diego State (Marshall Faulk) might have topped that, except that overtime rules were not in place in 1991, when they settled for a 52-52 tie. Hawaii’s Colt Brennan threw 75 passes in a 2007 game, a year after New Mexico State’s Chase Holbrook completed 50 passes. San Jose State gained 849 yards against Nevada in 2001. Utah beat Texas-El Paso by 76 points in 1973.

So what will have killed the WAC? Expansion, the phenomenon that has been occurring since 1978, when Arizona and Arizona State joined the Pac-10. Personally, I would love to have watched BYU and Utah try to consistently match ASU’s standards for decades to come.

The ’80s were stable, but then came all kinds of upheaval: the sudden growth to 16 teams, the eight-school break that created the Mountain West and then reactionary moves that have continued through this spring.

Utah State became one of the linchpins. BYU also played a role in 2010 by going independent in football and intending to join the WAC in other sports. That part of the plan fell apart, mostly because the Mountain West responded by luring Fresno State and Nevada from the WAC.

The MWC’s additions of Utah State and San Jose State came after the losses of Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East, which suffered from a long sequence of events that can be traced to Nebraska’s joining the Big Ten. Conference USA and the Sun Belt also picked off WAC members.

So with seven teams, only one (SJSU) of which joined the conference prior to this century, the WAC will stage a 51st and presumably final football season in 2012. All these years after being so bitter when the conference was created, Utah State is positioned to become the last WAC champion.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

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