WAC Expansion: Cal-Bakersfield, Utah Valley Desperate Choices

Scott HenryFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2012

PORTLAND, OR - MARCH 15:  Daniel Mullings #23 of the New Mexico State Aggies walks off the court after the Indiana Hoosiers win 79-66 in the second round of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Rose Garden Arena on March 15, 2012 in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Before 2003, the Western Athletic Conference had produced multiple NCAA tournament teams for 20 straight seasons. As recently as 1999, the league put three teams into a single year's March Madness.

Until earlier this week, the league was in danger of starting next season with only four teams, period. New Mexico State, Idaho, Seattle and Denver are the only schools set to play basketball in the WAC next season, and the latter two are new arrivals themselves.

On Tuesday, the WAC added Cal State Bakersfield and Utah Valley to its ranks for the 2013-14 season, moving closer to the magic number of seven schools needed to maintain the league's automatic tournament bid. Bakersfield is one of only two Division I independents this season, and Utah Valley is a member of the geographically incomprehensible Great West.

Three Texas schools, Texas State, UT-San Antonio and UT-Arlington, are merely passing through on their way to conferences that aren't ditching football. Louisiana Tech is set to bolt for Conference USA. Utah State and San Jose State are headed for the WAC's ingrateful offspring, the Mountain West.

Even the four still lined up for next season aren't set in stone. Idaho continues to flirt with a return to the Big Sky, but is currently under contract to remain in the WAC for next season.

None of the WAC's anticipated 2013-14 members were part of the league prior to 2005.

A basketball conference that was once home to names like Don "The Bear" Haskins, Tim Hardaway, Shawn Bradley and Keith Van Horn has now added a school like Utah Valley, which is a mere 10 years removed from junior-college status and has only been a full D-I institution since 2009.

The WAC will have until the end of the 2015 school year to boost its membership to seven, or else the automatic bid disappears, leaving the league in the same boat as the newly formed Great West.

That conference will be down to only three members itself next season. Texas-Pan American gained a modicum of fame when coach Ryan Marks wrote some columns for ESPN the Magazine. Chicago State and the New Jersey Institute of Technology have no such claims to fame.

The WAC's only hope for survival may be to channel its inner Donner Party and eat what's left of the Great West. UTPA makes geographic sense, but there are no schools in all of college sports that can arrive and repair the damage done to the WAC's profile.

While New Mexico State is a solid program with two NCAA appearances in the last three seasons, the futures of Seattle and Denver will be key to the league's survival. Denver was a strong competitor in the Sun Belt. Seattle has 11 NCAA tournament appearances in its history, including a runner-up finish led by NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor.

The WAC's history has already been flushed, with the eldest programs only having seven years of connection with the league. Perhaps only fans of the late Southwest Conference can answer whether it's better to watch one's league burn out or fade away.

Fans of New Mexico State have to cling to their conference as their only tournament hope. UT-Pan American fans should be picketing president Dr. Robert Nelsen's office, begging him to try for the WAC's next invitation.

Other leagues have taken damage in the frenzy of realignment. Those lumps are mere paper cuts compared to the WAC's near-death experience. The league that used to be the picture of health, getting three tournament bids and turning out first-round NBA draft picks, has become the emergency room patient learning how to walk again, trying to ensure it can one day keep dancing.


For in-depth previews of every conference in America, check out the Conference Calling 31 in 31 series on The Back Iron.