By Chris Mahr
Football in the Western Athletic Conference died on Tuesday afternoon, less than one month after turning 50 years old. The cause of death was suffocation, thought to be brought on by the burgeoning glut of mega-conferences.
Starting in the 1980s, the WAC was home to some of the more potent, non-BCS programs in college football. The likes of Air Force (departed 1999), BYU (1999), TCU (2001), Boise State (2011), Hawaii (2012), Nevada (2012) and Fresno State (2012) put both their programs and the conference on the map before bolting for greener pastures.
For WAC football’s 2012 swan song season, an unimpressive collection of standbys — Idaho, Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, San Jose State and Utah State — will be joined on the gridiron by an even less impressive cast of newcomers: UT-Arlington, UT-San Antonio and Texas State-San Marcos. (Two other new conference members, Denver and Seattle University, do not field football teams.)
While this passing is hard to bear, let us not think of how WAC football died. Rather, let’s remember it for how it lived.
Think back to the quirky-yet-highly-effective Triple Option attack of Fisher DeBerry’s Air Force teams. In just his second season in Colorado Springs in 1985, DeBerry led the Falcons to within one victory of playing for the national championship, finishing the year 12–1 and ranked No. 5 in the Coaches Poll and No. 8 in the AP Poll.
While Air Force did its damage on the ground, BYU flew over its opponents. The Cougars’ 1984 national title is the last that can be claimed by a current non-member of the BCS coalition, and with record-setting signal-callers such as Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Ty Detmer passing through Provo (literally speaking), BYU took its place in the 1980s and 1990s as “Quarterback U.”
TCU’s stint in the WAC lasted only five seasons (1996–2000). But in that time Dennis Franchione and star running back LaDainian Tomlinson restored the Horned Frogs to a level of respectability they hadn’t known since the 1930s. After handing the reins to then-defensive coordinator Gary Patterson for the 2000 Mobile Alabama Bowl (TCU’s last game as a WAC member), the program took off.
The season after that, it was Fresno State that took everyone by surprise. Led by coach Pat Hill — who encouraged his players to “shut up and hit someone” — and star quarterback David Carr (46 passing TDs), the Bulldogs shook up the college football world with a string of early-season upsets. Four seasons later, in 2005, their shootout with top-ranked USC was one of the best games of the year.
Meanwhile, in Honolulu, June Jones was revitalizing his coaching career and a once-moribund Hawaii football program. The pass-happy Warriors went 9–4 in Jones’ first season in 1999, one year after going 0–12. Eight years later, with QB Colt Brennan breaking NCAA passing marks left and right, Hawaii went undefeated in the regular season en route to a Sugar Bowl bid.
And don’t forget about the most beloved WAC program of them all: Boise State. From the blue turf at their home stadium to their quirky coaches and trick-play offenses, the Broncos became the college football equivalent of Gonzaga basketball: A widely admired upstart that everyone felt comfortable rooting for. Their wild upset win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, capped off by star running back Ian Johnson’s on-field proposal to his cheerleader girlfriend, was the high point.
These are memories fans can cherish. In an “industry” dominated by big-money teams and conferences, the WAC was a launching pad for self-starters, innovative coaches with can-do-attitudes and high-scoring offenses that caught the attention of the college football cognoscenti — and often sent the national title picture out of control.
For college football’s Cinderellas, the clock has struck midnight. And no lost slipper can save it now.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.