WAC's decline is Sun Belt's gain

by Walter Pierce

"Our attendance is increasing, I see real progress on the scheduling that some of our schools are doing, and we won two out of three last year in bowl games."

Officially, the battle doesn't end for 11 more months, but as of next July 1, the three-way race for the title of worst major-college football conference comes to an end. Congratulations to the WAC on its runaway victory.

The Sun Belt? Well, you fought the good fight, but you're too solid and stable now.

The teetering WAC cast out another desperate line recently and hooked Texas-Arlington for membership, a move that could not have made the Louisiana Tech faithful very happy. That makes three former Southland Conference members now affiliated with the WAC, part of a fivesome that joins the league next summer.

The five don't exactly send chills down college sports fans' spines - Seattle (non-football and until now unheard of), Denver (non-football and finally jettisoned by the Sun Belt Conference), Texas State (former Southland and I-AA/FCS member) and Texas-San Antonio (also former Southland and now adding football for the first time) along with UTA (also non-football).

The WAC has already lost Boise State's powerhouse football program effective three weeks ago, and at the end of next June, solid programs Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii will follow Boise to the Mountain West.

Until this year, the WAC, Sun Belt and the MAC could all make legitimate arguments in the race for 11th place among the 11 NCAA FBS (formerly I-A) conferences. The other eight leagues had long since been left in the dust no way the "Big Six" conferences - SEC, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12 and Big East - or the next tier of leagues (Mountain West and Conference USA) could compete for "worst" honors.

But with the WAC's subtractions and additions over the past year and a half, the fight is over.

Sun Belt commissioner Wright Waters knows about that fight. His league held the "worst" title when it began playing football in 2000 and went through some rugged times mid-decade. Now, the Sun Belt's membership numbers are solid (and improve next year when league member South Alabama adds football), its quality of play continues to improve and its members are rebuking offers for WAC membership.

"I think maybe we're a little ahead of where we thought we'd be in 10 years," Waters said during last week's Sun Belt football press days. "Our attendance is increasing, I see real progress on the scheduling that some of our schools are doing, and we won two out of three last year in bowl games.

"We're not in survival mode that we were seven or eight years agowe're very much in an enhancement mode, and it's because of some of the things we did in 2000 and 2001 when we got started."

Waters said that the WAC contacted several current Sun Belt members about jumping west, and was turned down by each. Waters didn't say which schools those were, and North Texas is the only one that confirmed a declined invitation. But Waters also indicated in a roundabout way that UL and Arkansas State - both members of a failed experiment with the Big West in the mid-90s - were in that group.

"There were some schools contacted," he said, "and all of them felt they had a better situation here. There's some history that kicks in, for some of the schools they tried to play in the old Big West and it didn't work. They decided that playing in the Southeast and in an all-sports league has something to it."

The recent moves - and recent coaches' chatter about the Sun Belt possibly moving from 10 to 12 football teams and playing a league title game - dredged up old rumors about Tech departing the WAC for the Belt. Tech athletic director Bruce Van De Velde pushed aside those rumors in a recent Shreveport Times story after the WAC's UTA addition, while at the same time throwing dirt on Sun Belt academics.

"It's not just about football," Van De Velde told the Times. "It's also about academics and how things fit the vision of the institution's graduation rates. No one wants to compete in a league that takes short cuts academically and that faces a lot of APR problems. For the most part, we don't have that in the WAC."

The hilarity of a Louisiana institution casting academic aspersions on any other group of schools in the country aside, Van De Velde also admitted that the WAC may not be the long-term answer for the Bulldogs. Perhaps he suddenly realized that his teams will now be travel-partnered with Texas-Arlington, and realized that you're known by the company you keep.

"The WAC has been a really good league," he told the Times. "We had three teams in the Top 25 last year (NOTE: all three are headed out the WAC doors). That's not true in the future, but we can't look too far in the future. We'll get through this year and then evaluate."

The definition of "evaluate," in this case: Get out of this league if at all possible.