This time a year ago, the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision was full of conference realignment speculation. When all the dust settled, much of the speculation proved true. The biggest mix-up in the last 15 years, however, did not come without a fight from those who felt they were getting the short-end of the stick.
For example, Boise State took what it thought was a step toward BCS recognition when it switched to the Mountain West Conference (“MWC”). Shortly thereafter, Western Athletic Conference (“WAC”) officials had each remaining school agree to stay in the conference until 2016 or pay a fine. Fresno State signed the contract, but Nevada only agreed orally. Less than a week later, both schools deserted the WAC to join the MWC. Accordingly, the WAC board of directors sent a letter to both schools demanding the $5 million fine for breaching the contract. When both schools refused to pay the fee and made plans for the joining the MWC for the 2011-12 school year, the WAC sued to enforce the provision that required the schools to stay with the conference through at least the 2012-13 school year.
At the same time, the MWC saw its top three teams (BYU, Utah, and TCU) – the winners of its last eight conference championships – depart. Those teams do not face the breach of contract issues that Nevada and Fresno State continue to fight. TCU, however, failed to notify the conference of its intent to leave by September 1, 2010, and according to the MWC bylaws, it must remain in the conference through the 2011-12 school year. And so, as the MWC looks to protect its own interests over those of its departing members, the drama begins again.
Yesterday, TCU’s head coach Gary Patterson, expressed his deep frustration with the conference for refusing to accommodate any of TCU’s scheduling requests. The underlying basis for the changes by non-BCS teams and conferences last year was to put themselves in the best position to take advantage of the BCS system.
It is no secret that the MWC feels jilted by the BCS. It has sent four undefeated teams to BCS bowls in the past seven seasons. None played for the National Championship. In 2009, the MWC reluctantly agreed to sign an extension with the BCS though the 2013 season. This past year, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff went to Congress hoping to persuade the Department of Justice to file a lawsuit against the BCS for violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
The BCS has a clause that allows non-automatic qualifying conferences to become an automatic qualifier if they meet certain conditions. However, the next season that a conference could become an automatic qualifier would be the 2012-13 season. While the MWC seemed to be in prime position to become an automatic qualifier when it lured Boise State to join its ranks, it took a major hit when BYU, Utah and TCU abandoned ship. Under the BCS contract, a major factor in determining whether a conference can become an automatic qualifier is the conference’s sustained success between the 2008 and 2011 seasons, but the contract also states that the success is only according “to the conference’s membership on December 4, 2011” and not those who used to be in the conference. In other words, Utah’s undefeated seasons and BYU’s 10-win seasons do not count toward the MWC’s application for BCS status. Understandably so, the MWC is a little bitter. Unfortunately, BYU and Utah will leave the MWC after this school year and the MWC cannot “punish” them. TCU, however, was a little tardy in finding a new home and will stick around for another year.
The conference and TCU cannot both win. TCU has high hopes of reaching a BCS bowl game again and possibly even playing for the national championship. If the MWC’s bid for BCS status fails, it will not be eligible again until the 2014 season. Its bid will then be based on conference performance between the 2010 and 2013 seasons. Because the MWC’s upcoming bid is likely to fail, it only benefits from the success of the teams that will be in the conference after the 2011 season, and it has no interest in accommodating TCU’s success. Thus, the MWC made TCU’s hardest conference game (against Boise State) an away game. It also refused to give TCU a bye-week when it wanted one. So, just as the WAC is seeking some sort of compensation from Nevada and Fresno State for leaving early, it appears that the MWC is looking for a little vengeance of its own.