‘The Project’: How a failed plan hatched by the WAC, BYU and USU 10 years ago nearly changed college sports in the West
Part of BYU’s move to football independence in 2010 originally included a deal to put the school’s other sports in the WAC, but it was eventually scuttled when the Mountain West Conference invited then-WAC members Nevada and Fresno State.
PROVO — It was known, simply, as “The Project.”
If the surreptitious plan masterminded 10 years ago this month by the then-presidents of BYU, Utah State and Fresno State and then-Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson had come to fruition, college sports conferences in the West — at least those outside the Pac-12 — probably would look nothing like they do now.
Television sports giant ESPN was in on it, too.
How would college sports look differently?
BYU would have most of its sports other than football parked in the WAC, and not the West Coast Conference. Utah State, Fresno State, Nevada and perhaps even UNLV and San Diego State would probably be in the WAC, and that far-flung league that is now a shell of its former self would quite likely rival the Mountain West, perhaps surpass it, as the second-most powerful league in the West.
Obviously, it didn’t happen, but it made for some wild weeks of speculation, private and public posturing and, eventually, allegations of sabotage on the part of Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson in August of 2010.
Of course, the Cougars’ desire to go independent in football and leave the Mountain West Conference that summer sparked all the backroom wheeling and dealing that led to what USU president Stan Albrecht, BYU president Cecil Samuelson, FSU president John Welty and WAC officials began referring to as their “project.”
The cloak-and-dagger machinations were designed to add all of BYU’s sports teams except football to the WAC, which was reeling at the time because two months prior national football power Boise State had announced it was leaving the WAC for the MWC, beginning in 2011. The plan also called for football games against BYU — a huge draw anywhere in the West — for the WAC’s top teams on an annual basis, games that would be televised by ESPN, of course.
The so-called worldwide leader has always had a soft spot for BYU football, emails showed.
Uncovered by The Salt Lake Tribune through public records requests to USU for emails and documents exchanged between the aforementioned parties a week after the plan disintegrated, the plot showed how desperately BYU wanted out of the Mountain West, how much USU’s Albrecht wanted to be leaguemates with the Cougars, and how a leak from officials at a third conference — Conference USA — tipped off Thompson and eventually scuttled the whole enterprise.
“This has been a very emotional day for me — both on the professional and personal side.” — Then-WAC commissioner Karl Benson in a 2010 email to presidents of WAC schools
How did it fall apart so quickly?
A Tribune article published 10 days after The Project imploded spelled it all out.
Emails showed the parties involved discussed it for weeks — even before BYU’s biggest rival, Utah, bolted the Mountain West for the Pac-12. BYU’s dissatisfaction with the Mountain West — specifically the conference’s awful television contract — was clear and relentless long before the landscape changed in 2010.
An email from Benson to Welty regarding a conversation the commissioner had with Burke Magnus, ESPN director of collegiate sports programs, put the wheels in motion around Aug. 13, 2010. The WAC wanted a deal with ESPN, but the broadcaster would not negotiate until the conference had BYU in the fold.
In one elation-filled email, Benson told WAC presidents he had talked to BYU’s representatives several times “and they are getting close to finalizing the deal with ESPN. It appears BYU is prepared to go forward despite not getting the exact number (financially) they were hoping for.”
Benson said Samuelson expected to get approval from BYU’s Board of Trustees in a “special meeting” and was ready to announce its independence/WAC plans on Aug. 18. The Project was materializing. And then it wasn’t.
Blame Thompson, for better or worse.
Having gotten wind of The Project a few days prior, Thompson “hastily invited” Fresno State and Nevada to join his league, according to one of Benson’s emails, a preemptive strike against the WAC. Much to the chagrin of BYU and Benson, FSU president Welty — one of The Project’s chief engineers — turned against them and accepted the MWC invitation hours after it was extended.
Nevada president Milt Glick, also in on the plan from the day it was hatched, jumped aboard a short time later, betraying Benson, Albrecht and Samuelson as well. The Project was dead.
As the arrangement crumbled in a span of about 24 hours, Benson would tell remaining WAC presidents, “this has been a very emotional day for me — both on the professional and personal side.”
A couple weeks later, it got worse for the man who retired last year after a seven-year stint as commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference; BYU declared its football independence on Aug. 31, 2010, and put most of its other sports in the WCC. The Cougars did play several WAC schools — Idaho and New Mexico State, for instance — their first few seasons as an independent while athletic director Tom Holmoe gradually built better schedules.
Utah State, which had stayed loyal to the WAC in that tumultuous summer of 2010, joined the Mountain West in 2013, after accepting an invitation from that conference on May 4, 2012.
And The Project became a distant memory.