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THIS LAND IS WAC LAND, THIS LAND IS BENSON’S LAND

SHARE THIS LAND IS WAC LAND, THIS LAND IS BENSON’S LAND

Sometime in the next two years, there will be ads in the major papers and on television that go something like this: "The New Western Athletic Conference - Coming to a Stadium Near You."

Karl Benson, who was named WAC commissioner last April, says the nation's farthest-flung conference needs to re-invent itself. It needs a facelift. A wash and wax. The Old WAC needs to become the New and Improved WAC.In two years the league will be adding six teams, five markets and one time zone. Consequently, Benson plans to redesign the WAC logo, change the colors, print up t-shirts with catchy phrases and institute a national promotional campaign.

"Sometimes," says Benson, "you've got to beat the drum for yourself."

If the 42-year-old Benson has the air of one who is master over all he surveys, it's because, well, he is. His new job includes heading up the largest, most diverse conference in America. By 1996 the WAC will have 16 teams and include four time zones. The new WAC is a conference Kate Smith would embrace, reaching from the mountains (Colorado State, Air Force, Utah, BYU), to the prairies (TCU, SMU), to the oceans (San Diego State, Hawaii, San Jose State) white with foam.

But it doesn't stop there. The new WAC will also include the deserts (UTEP, New Mexico, UNLV), farmlands (Fresno State) and high plains (Wyoming) just for good measure.

"Maybe we ought to add an oil derrick to our logo," BYU football coach LaVell Edwards points out (Rice, Tulsa).

The joke going making the rounds is that the WAC doesn't stand for Western Athletic Conference anymore, it stands for World Athletic Conference.

In a time of upheaval and change in college athletics, the WAC symbolizes the latest in state-of-the-art opportunism. While some leagues are coming down like the Berlin Wall, the rest are positioning themselves for the upcoming national championship of football. Division I-A conferences are trying to become strong enough to make the elite field of leagues which will play off for the national title.

So far, the WAC has been left wandering in the desert, adrift at sea and stranded on the mountaintop, so to speak. The Southeast, Big 12, Big East, ACC, Pac-10 and Big 10 conferences are preparing a Bowl Alliance, which will also include two at-large teams - one of them certain to be Notre Dame. That leaves one at-large team, which likely won't be from the WAC, due to the marginal national appeal and market size of most of the teams.

The WAC is fighting long odds, hoping to be added to the Alliance mix, thus ensuring the league a legitimate chance at the national title and the accompanying television money.

Though taking over the WAC in a time of flux could be considered a rather risky proposition, taking risks isn't new to Benson. He left a secure job as athletic director at Pierce Community College in Tacoma a decade ago to work in the athletic department at the University of Utah. Which would normally have been a good career move, except that he wasn't getting paid.

Two years later he had landed a job with the NCAA in Kansas City. Five years after that, in 1990, he became commissioner of the Mid-American Conference.

These days, Benson is everwhere promoting the WAC. That's him on the radio in Birmingham, explaining the biggest land grab since the Louisiana Purchase. There he is on the air in Columbus, Ohio, describing a conference in which you can reach Medallion Level in a single road trip.

Benson says he plans to market the spectacular geography and the livability of the WAC's cities. He wants to have the best player in the league on the cover of the WAC media guide and videotaped highlights sent to all major media outlets. And he wants to showcase colorful personalities in the league such as legendary UTEP basketball coach Don Haskins and enterprising Utah basketball coach Rick Majerus.

When players are drafted high in the NFL or NBA drafts, he wants a press release. When a coach or player receives a national honor, he wants the media on a conference call.

The commissioner of the World, er, Western Athletic Conference isn't content with just being the biggest conference this side of NATO. He wants to be as well known.

There is always the risk the WAC will fall flat and plans to join the biggest of the big boys will fail. There is a chance the huge new league will be unwieldy and clumsy.

But there are also rewards, not the least of them being that Benson can sit on a beach, explore the desert, ski a mountain and play the slots - all without leaving his workspace.