WAC commissioner lashes back at Fresno State and Nevada but insists league will survive
Wednesday started as an exciting day for Karl Benson, with the longtime Western Athletic Conference commissioner moving his daughter into her dorm at USC as news circulated Brigham Young was about to join the WAC in all sports except football.
Things turned at 5 p.m, when Fresno State and Nevada called to inform they were leaving the WAC for the Mountain West, only days after the two schools agreed to WAC solidarity in the form of a $5-million exit fee.
Thursday, a calm but obviously agitated Benson called the moves of Fresno State and Nevada "selfish actions." Benson clearly felt betrayed, as the departures threw a monkey wrench into the BYU deal.
The WAC is already losing Boise State to the Mountain West after the 2010 season. The departures of Nevada and Fresno State will leave the league with only six football-playing members.
Benson made clear he was holding Fresno State and Nevada to the $5-million exit fee, payable "within 60 days" even though Nevada hadn't yet signed the formal agreement. Benson said Nevada made an oral agreement, which the WAC thinks is legally binding.
"I wish at this time I would have made it $20 million," Benson said.
Also, Benson noted Nevada and Fresno State failed to meet the July 1 exit deadline for leaving next year, meaning they technically can't leave for two years.
"Only if it's in the WAC's best interests for there to be an early out would there be an early out," Benson said.
Benson said the WAC will now seek out membership from other conferences, but he made clear that the WAC will survive. He went through this more than a decade ago, when the football members of the 16-team league broke off to form the Mountain West.
He said the move then was made "under the shadow of behind closed doors," and that this move "had that same element."
Benson thought he was above board, however, in his dealings with BYU once the school said last month it was exploring options to leave the Mountain West and become a football independent. Benson said the WAC would be willing to absorb BYU's 19 other sports.
Benson thought the deal was in place until the Mountain West countered Wednesday by nabbing Fresno State and Nevada, which makes the BYU-to-WAC deal much less attractive.
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said Wednesday night the moves weren't related to BYU, but Benson doesn't believe that.
"In my opinion, it was very clear to me and to the WAC membership that the Fresno and Nevada invitations were a direct result of BYU's interest in going independent and going to the WAC," he said.
The WAC was going to offer BYU football four to six games per year to fill its schedule. Benson is still hoping BYU will consider the partnership, although it's much less attractive without Fresno and Nevada.
Benson said schools are already calling him about possibly joining the WAC. He said the league would consider 1-AA schools looking to move up but the preference would be schools from existing BCS conferences. A prime target would seem to be 12-team Conference USA.
Benson said he does not take what happened personally. "He has a job to do and I have a job to do," he said of Thompson.
The WAC and Mountain West were in a furious battle to increase their profile in the BCS. Neither conference has "automatic qualifying" status for its champion.
Wednesday morning, the WAC had the upper hand. By nightfall the Mountain West had trumped the WAC and possibly derailed BYU's plans.
"We're all chasing the BCS," Benson said. "We're chasing recognition and notoriety, chasing the financial benefits that come with the BCS ... to get a bigger piece and to have greater access."-- Chris Dufresne