Nevada, Fresno State move to MWC
SALT LAKE CITY -- The Mountain West is growing, the Western Athletic Conference is in danger of being whittled away and BYU is considering going it alone -- at least in football.
The West went wild Wednesday in the latest round of conference shuffling in college sports.
Fresno State and Nevada ended a day of fast-paced change by accepting invitations to join the Mountain West Conference, which has added three prominent members of the Western Athletic Conference in the past two months.
We're simply looking at getting better, and we got better tonight with Fresno State and Nevada joining our league.” -- Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson
Boise State is already bound for the MWC next year, and now the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack are following as well, leaving the WAC's future in question and the Mountain West preparing for life after Utah -- and possibly without BYU, too.
"We're simply looking at getting better, and we got better tonight with Fresno State and Nevada joining our league," Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said in a conference call Wednesday night.
Thompson spoke after returning from a meeting in Philadelphia with Comcast and CBS officials, who said they wanted the league and its television network -- The Mtn. -- to reach more markets. The league started the network a few years ago, giving up national exposure on ESPN for more scheduling freedom.
"[Expansion] just made lot of sense at this particular juncture. We got better and we helped our TV position," he said.
WAC loses power
Within a 12-hour period, the Western Athletic Conference went from becoming a more formidable western power, with the addition of BYU in all sports but football, to fighting for its life with six remaining members.
Nevada and Fresno State followed Boise State from the WAC to the Mountain West on Wednesday.
On a conference call Friday with the other seven WAC presidents, Fresno State president John Welty made a motion to sign a binding agreement that included a $5 million buyout if any of the schools left the conference within five years, according to sources. Nevada president Milt Glick also was on the call, and according to sources, he and Welty signed the agreement.
A source with knowledge of the call told ESPN.com late Wednesday night whether Welty made the motion is irrelevant. Someone would have made the motion. But that's not the way the remaining six WAC members -- Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Idaho, San Jose State, New Mexico State and Utah State -- might look at Fresno State's decision to go to the Mountain West.
According to multiple sources, Welty was assured BYU, which is considering becoming a football independent, would schedule a four-year home-and-home football series with Fresno State. The Cougars also would play Hawaii in a 10-year home-and-home series. Utah State and Nevada also would get football games against the Cougars.
A source with knowledge of the WAC's football scheduling said the league wanted to add BYU for name recognition and to alleviate a scheduling imbalance created when Boise State leaves the league in 2011 for the Mountain West.
MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said on a conference call Wednesday that he has been aware of the agreement between the remaining WAC schools for about a week. But that time frame goes against multiple sources who said the agreement was made Friday.
Thompson said adding Fresno State and Nevada happened quickly. He said he issued the invitations to both schools Wednesday. He also said he had never been to Fresno, Calif.
According to sources, BYU will now decide whether leaving the MWC is its best move. The terms of being an independent in football haven't changed for the Cougars, who would have their own television contract with the possibility of being supplemented by ESPN. But whether BYU wants to join a six-team WAC remains to be seen. Thompson said that as of Wednesday night, BYU was a full participating member of the MWC. He also said Boise State participated in the process of adding Nevada and Fresno State.
Under NCAA rules, the WAC still maintains its men's basketball tournament automatic bid with six schools.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson will conduct a teleconference Thursday. The WAC likely will pursue expansion and will need to stay together as an entity to pursue the combined $10 million it is owed in exit fees from Nevada and Fresno State.
The WAC's television deal with ESPN, like all TV deals with conferences, is contingent on membership and can be renegotiated. But don't expect the MWC to move to ESPN. Thompson said the league is set with Comcast/CBS/The Mtn. through 2016.
-- Andy Katz, ESPN.com
The MWC also helped its bargaining position with BYU, which is reportedly mulling going independent in football and joining the WAC in all other sports. The Cougars have not confirmed anything and might need another look before making anything official. At this rate, there might not be much of a WAC left to join.
The Mountain West is covered either way after inviting Fresno State and Nevada to join the league Wednesday morning and both schools accepting before the day was over.
"I think people have been waiting a long time for this day. We think it is really a game changer for us," Nevada president Milt Glick said. "This is a momentous day for the University of Nevada."
Glick said the Wolf Pack's move, which puts Nevada in the same league as state rival UNLV, would take effect either next year or in 2012.
Fresno State president John D. Welty said the Bulldogs will join the MWC in 2011-12, although the Bulldogs later amended that to sometime in the next two years.
Thompson said the latest expansion wasn't a pre-emptive strike in case BYU does decide to leave the conference. Nor was it a way to prevent the Cougars from leaving, by giving them nowhere to go.
But by adding Nevada and Fresno State, the Mountain West clearly is in a stronger position with the Cougars. Thompson also said the additions will increase the conference's chances of earning an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series, something the MWC has been pushing for in recent years.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson was out of the office Wednesday, and did not immediately return calls and e-mails seeking comment. The WAC announced Benson will hold a teleconference Thursday to address the losses.
After Boise State announced its departure, the remaining WAC members -- Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada and Utah State -- established a $5 million buyout agreement that would be assessed to any member that left the conference within the next five years.
Nevada agreed to the $5 million buyout to stay in the WAC, but the school said it never signed the agreement. This should allow Nevada to leave without a penalty but likely will be a point of contention with the WAC.
The schools made the buyout move to keep other members from following the Broncos to the Mountain West. According to sources close to the situation, BYU wanted the buyout agreement reached to ensure the WAC would remain strong if the Cougars returned to the league in all sports but football.
According to sources, the WAC will ensure its schools are legally bound by the agreement. Sources also said that Boise State, which will be leaving the WAC for the MWC in 2011, had made overtures to other WAC members about moving to the MWC, unaware the schools had signed the document.
At least one source with direct ties to Fresno State said the signing of the buyout document caught some in the athletic department off guard, as the WAC would not have had much leverage had Fresno State not signed the deal.
If BYU departs the MWC, it would leave the conference with 10 football-playing members.
The remaining MWC presidents and commissioners, aware and perhaps even agitated that BYU approached the WAC, might elect not to fight for it to stay.
In this scenario, the WAC would be left with only six football-playing schools, meaning BYU could choose to go independent in football but play other sports in a conference other than the WAC, such as the West Coast Conference.
WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich told ESPN.com early Wednesday that the league would be interested in pursuing BYU for all sports except football. Zaninovich said BYU would fit well with the other church-based institutions in the eight-team league. Zaninovich told ESPN.com that he reached out to BYU but had not heard back.
BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was left out of the various realignments earlier this year, and athletic director Tom Holmoe said last month that going independent was an option the Cougars would consider. BYU already has its own television network -- BYU-TV -- which would get the Cougars out of having to share the Mountain West's TV network with the league's other eight members.
"We have a national base. We can go all over the country and people can see that," Holmoe told reporters last month. "That is a very important thing to us right now -- exposure."
The Salt Lake Tribune published Holmoe's comments on Wednesday after the rumors that the Cougars were going back to the WAC surfaced and then erupted when somebody apparently hacked the Colorado State athletics Twitter account and said an announcement was imminent.
The Tribune, citing an unidentified WAC source, said BYU's move was awaiting approval of church leaders. A church spokeswoman referred calls back to BYU, which released a brief statement late in the day after media relations workers were bombarded with calls and e-mails.
The statement did nothing to tone down speculation on whether conference realignment was really back again two months after it appeared settled for at least a little while.
"BYU has been reviewing, and will continue to explore, every option to advance its athletic program," the statement read. "At this point, BYU has no further comment."
ESPN.com's Andy Katz, ESPN's Joe Schad and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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