Commentary

Conference cannibalism continues

Originally Published: August 19, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The offices of the Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences are separated by just a short stretch of Interstate 25 along Colorado's front range of the Rocky Mountains. Driving distance between MWC headquarters, north of Colorado Springs, and the WAC, south of Denver: 41 miles.

They don't share just geography, though. They share profiles, too. They're striver leagues on the outside of the college football circle of power that have overcome the stigma to win multiple BCS bowl games. And when they've had those victories -- two by Utah for the MWC, two by Boise State for the WAC -- there has been an aura of mutual respect and congratulation for sticking it to the elite.

[+] EnlargeCraig Thompson
AP Photo/Susan WalshMWC commissioner Craig Thompson has raided the WAC for three teams since June.

I remember calling Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson for his reaction after WAC champion Boise State shocked Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He described the Boise victory as "great" and "one for the ages." Said he was openly cheering for the Broncos.

That seems like a very long time ago.

Today, Thompson and WAC commish Karl Benson might as well meet halfway between their offices -- say, Castle Rock -- for an Old West gunfight at 20 paces. During the course of a single predatory summer, the relationship between the leagues has devolved from brotherhood to fratricide.

The Mountain West poached first. It plucked Boise State from the WAC in June, trying to solidify itself as the entire landscape of college sports threatened to change. But after MWC member Utah left for the Pacific-10, that appeared to end the MWC-WAC movement.

Until this week. That's when Brigham Young's stunning gambit to become a football independent and a WAC member in all other sports became public. By the time the news leaked, it was a virtual done deal -- and the Mountain West, staring at the prospect of being down two marquee football programs, was suddenly in serious trouble.

So the MWC made a Darwinian counter attack Wednesday to grab WAC members Nevada and Fresno State. With his own conference teetering on the brink of collapse, Thompson moved to shove the WAC off a cliff first.

In today's intercollegiate environment, [raiding other leagues] has become fairly routine and fairly standard.

-- WAC commissioner Karl Benson

On a marathon teleconference Thursday, Benson spent less time criticizing Thompson and the Mountain West ("Craig has a job to do, and I have a job to do"), and more time stabbing at Fresno and Nevada. He said they committed a "selfish act" and noted that as of this past Friday, both schools were all about WAC unity with BYU coming aboard -- until a better deal came along.

"On Friday there was solidarity," Benson said. "And four days later there was a defection."

The summer of defections to the MWC doesn't just leave the WAC with six teams and missing three of its most powerful football programs. It could well leave the WAC without BYU, too.

The MWC acquisitions of Nevada and Fresno abruptly cut off BYU's end run at the pass. The Cougars would be sending their other 19 sports into obscurity, competing in what now is a league of vastly diminished visibility and competitiveness. Benson said BYU is still more than welcome to join -- but he sounded more wishful than confident.

Don't be surprised to see BYU return -- however reluctantly -- to the Mountain West. Until the next realignment spasm happens.

Meanwhile, Benson is left trying to once again piece back together the league he has overseen for 16 tumultuous seasons.

It's true the MWC and WAC have had their share of friction. The Mountain West was born 12 years ago out of dissatisfaction with the WAC -- eight schools broke away from the unwieldy, 16-team WAC.

[+] EnlargeBYU
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBYU sparked the latest run of realignment moves.

But in recent years, the two conferences shared what Benson called "a healthy rivalry." Now it's turned into something that feels much more like blood sport.

The root cause of this particular form of conference cannibalism is none other than the BCS. If college football had an equitable means of crowning a national champion, one that was at least in theory open to teams from all leagues, would all this be happening?

"Probably not," Benson said. "That's a fair question. I think we're all chasing the BCS; we're all chasing recruiting exposure and notoriety and the financial windfall that comes with the BCS. We're all positioning ourselves for a bigger piece."

That's why, in this decade, conferences have attacked each other with a remarkable degree of avarice and a general disregard for collegiality. All the high-minded ideals university bigwigs like to talk about have been tossed aside in the brass-knuckles fight for increased revenue.

And in the bigger-is-better world of college sports, the painful side effects trickle down to the weak. The ACC attacked the Big East, which responded by gutting Conference USA. The Big Ten nearly poached the Big 12 out of existence. And once the Pac-10 destabilized the Mountain West by pilfering Utah, that left the MWC and WAC in an eye-gouging struggle to survive.

"In today's intercollegiate environment," Benson said, "[raiding other leagues] has become fairly routine and fairly standard."

This week, that standard operating procedure killed a brotherhood.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.