GIVE SOME THINGS time and they begin to make sense. Fresno State joining the Western Athletic Conference isn't one of them.
The WAC's decision of a week ago makes as much sense now as it did then. What the league now has is the Raisin Capital of the World and another out of the way road trip.Fresno State has an aggressive and well-run athletic department. Its football team, especially, has been a model of consistency the past several years. But what does having an ambitious,upwardly mobile sports program have to do with criteria for membership in a major college athletic conference these days?
Basically, there are four main factors a league has to look at in adding a new school:
I. The Established Bloodlines Factor. (Schools like Penn State and Notre Dame, for instance, that have years of tradition, bowl game appearances, mystique, a national presence and are on TV more often than Bill Cosby).
II. The Terrific City Factor. (Cities like San Francisco and New York and New Orleans and Boston and, for that matter, the island of Bora Bora, can make even a bad school look attractive).
III. The Great Publicity Factor. (Some schools have a knack for getting noticed, usually because of the personalities involved, a la Bobby Knight at Indiana, Jerry Tarkanian at Nevada-Las Vegas, John Thompson at Georgetown, etc.).
IV. The Someone to Pound On Factor. (If schools don't have established bloodlines, they can still be attractive if their programs are weak to the point that they will make the other schools in the league look awesome; in WAC football, for instance, New Mexico should pay someone to come into the league as long as it could win the football game).
Fresno State doesn't qualify in any of the above four. It has been a rather nondescript school since its beginnings as a teacher's college in a rather nondescript city in 1911, it doesn't have any notable wackos coaching its teams, and, at least in football, it's going to be hard for most of the WAC's existing third world programs to hold their own with the Bulldogs.
The WAC could have looked in any number of other directions to expand. It could have, overnight, become the hottest league in the country if it had talked Notre Dame into coming on board. It could have talked to schools in the Eastern Time Zone - for Eastern Seaboard media exposure - such as Boston College or Temple (both of which are closer to the WAC than Honolulu). It could have talked to the University of Louisville, a pedigreed school too big for its existing league. It could have talked to Tulane. In the West, it could have talked to the Oregon schools about defecting from the Pac 10, where they're treated like refugees. In the Big West, Las Vegas would have been the most logical choice, San Jose State would have been the most populated choice, and Utah State would have been the most loyal choice. Fresno would have been a distant fifth, and only ahead of Santa Barbara, Fullerton and Irvine because they play basketball in bowling alleys.
Now, the WAC's future holds road trips to Fresno.
Fresno isn't easy to get to. It is 171 miles from Sacramento, 176 miles from San Francisco, 180 miles from the Monterey Peninsula, 211 miles from Los Angeles and 377 miles from Las Vegas. The easiest way to know you're there is if you look at your gas gauge and it's on empty.
The Five top places to eat once you're in Fresno:
5. McDonald's, 4. Jack in the Box, 3. Sequoia Gas 'N Goodies, 2. The Denny's on the east side of town, 1. The Denny's on the west side of town.
If you've been to Fresno, you know there is a long thoroughfare named Shaw Avenue that runs past every fastfood franchise known in the history of California. The main nightly activity for most of Fresno's 400,000 residents is to drive their cars up and down Shaw Avenue, stopping occasionally for a raisin shake.
Fresno does have good proximity to two of America's top national parks. It is 80 miles from Sequoia National park and 160 miles from Yosemite National Park. Of geographical note is that Fresno is the closest city of any size in the country to both the highest point in the continental United States and the lowest point in the continental United States. Mt. Whitney, at 14,494 feet, is 100 miles to the west and the Badland Basin in Death Valley, at minus 282 feet, is 175 miles to the southwest.
The WAC's new marketing strategy: Come to Fresno. Experience the highs and the lows.
Now the WAC can say that it stretches from the beaches of Hawaii to the badlands of Wyoming to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the shores of the Great Salt Lake to the Mexican border . . . to the raisin fields of Fresno.
It's a new look. Fresno gives the WAC a new dimension. While the Big Ten is adding Penn State and the Southeast is adding Arkansas, the WAC is adding the San Joaquin Valley. It's on the map. If you know where to look.