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MWC and WAC battle becoming a hot war

Photo illustration by Josh Ferrin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They are saying it's nothing personal, just the business of business. So why does it feel so personal between the Mountain West and the Western Athletic conferences?

Because neither can turn around without bumping into the other.

And then there's that cannibalism issue. Otherwise, things couldn't be finer.

The ongoing tension between conferences soared this week with the proposed move of BYU to independent status in football and from the MWC to the WAC in all other sports. That hasn't come off as planned. Why? Because the MWC interfered by stealing Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC.

Call it healthy competition or bad blood. Consider it a simple sibling rivalry or a war to the death. One thing is certain: These two Western-based conferences aren't getting closer.

It's hard to be friends when things are becoming, as one writer framed it in a question, "predatory."

"I don't look at it as necessarily predatory," said WAC commissioner Karl Benson on a conference call Thursday. "In today's intercollegiate athletic environment, it has become fairly routine, fairly standard."

The first shot of the summer was fired in June when the University of Utah left the MWC for the Pac-10, facilitating Boise State's jump from the WAC. But the WAC nearly landed a reciprocal blow Wednesday when it invited BYU to join. In a matter of hours, Fresno State and Nevada announced they were leaving the WAC for you-know-where. That potentially left the WAC with only six football-playing schools. It could even mean the demise of the WAC.

"In a 12-hour period, we went from having a secure future to not knowing what will happen," Benson said.

Such a position isn't the first for Benson. When the MWC was formed in 1998-99, it was believed the departure of Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah and Wyoming to form the MWC would vaporize the WAC. But the conference rebuilt around teams like Fresno State, Boise State and Nevada. Meanwhile, the MWC added TCU.

The MWC has traditionally been considered the overall better conference. In most power rankings, it is rated seventh-best in the nation, the WAC eighth. The MWC has supplied three BCS bowl teams (Utah twice, TCU once), the WAC three (Boise State twice, Hawaii once). Each has won two BCS bowls.

Utah has finished higher in the final polls, ranking as high as second in January 2008, but BSU begins this year ranked higher (third) than any MWC team has ever started.

To exacerbate the situation, TCU and BSU played each other in consecutive bowl games, each getting a win.

The MWC has a 47-34 lead in games vs. the WAC. But if you toss out its 12-1 mark against Utah State (including seven wins by Utah and BYU), the series is MWC 35, WAC 33. Add the fact BSU is 8-1 against MWC teams, you have the makings of some seriously bad feelings.

At least it seemed that way Thursday when Benson called Nevada and FSU "selfish."

"There was a similarity (to 1998-99) in the way this was done," he said.

That there would be animosity between leagues isn't surprising. They recruit basically the same areas and overlap in their footprints. They are united in trying to bring down the wall of BCS oppression but at the same time are competing head-to-head.

MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said Wednesday the invitations to Nevada and FSU were unrelated to BYU's proposed move to the WAC. Benson, however, wasn't buying it.

"In my opinion, it was very clear to me and the WAC membership that the Fresno State and Nevada invitation was a direct result of BYU's interest in going independent and joining the WAC," he said.


Now the WAC is hoping to again piece together a conference from among the Sacramento/Texas States and Cal-Poly/Davises of the world.

On the surface, all remains civil. On Wednesday, MWC commissioner Craig Thompson dismissed questions of whether there is bad blood, saying, "I don't think so" and then discussed his conference's quest for improvement.

Nothing personal, he said.

"As Craig (Thompson) mentioned, he has a job to do and I have a job to do," Benson said. He continued by saying that teams changing conferences "in today's world, it's part of the job."

Some jobs just happen to be more personal, and a whole lot more contentious, than others.