When the University of Hawaii pounced upon an invitation to join the Western Athletic Conference in 1978, the jubilation was half in where UH was going and half in what it was leaving behind.
Gone forever, then-athletic director Ray Nagel and others said, were the days of struggling to get by as an independent 2,500 miles off the beaten path.
But now, as UH waits to see what might become of the WAC—its home for going on 32 years—in the fast-changing college landscape, there has been a growing willingness to at least ponder whether returning to independent status could be a future option if the WAC withers.
Already it is a popular topic of debate on call-in shows and chat rooms.
Faced with, say, departures by Fresno State and Nevada and no other conference to land in, independence could become an option.
"It (independence) is not an option for me as the WAC stands now," said athletic director Jim Donovan. "But if dramatic changes came, we’d have to look at all of our options and see what is best for the state, the school and the program."
Historically, since the establishment of the NCAA’s Division I-A (now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 1978, few schools have dared go independent in football or stayed unaligned for very long. Currently, there are only three: Army, Navy and Notre Dame, all longtime independents.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, a former UH quarterback and assistant coach, said it isn’t for everybody. "It takes a special situation like we have here (at Navy)," Niumatalolo said.
After a century as an independent, Army joined Conference USA in 1998 and stayed through 2004 before returning to independent status.
All three have conference affiliations for sports other than football: Army and Navy with the Patriot League and Notre Dame with the Big East.
Common elements of their success as independents are national appeal, which provides an ability to schedule games; longtime rivals; individual TV contracts; and conferences for their sports other than football to compete in.
"For us, the Army and Notre Dame games are huge financially," Niumatalolo said. "Playing those two every year gives us two big revenue games."
Army and Navy have contracts with the CBS College Sports Network for their home and host games, while Notre Dame has an NBC agreement that has paid upwards of $9 million per season.
UH CONFERENCE HISTORY
» Men: Western Athletic Conference 1979-present
While UH receives upwards of $2.5 million for its TV and pay-per-view rights, it would likely have to strike a wide-ranging deal with ESPN if it were to consider going independent. When June Jones was the UH coach, he floated the idea of selling ESPN on a last-game-of-the-night package for UH home games, a concept that has long had appeal at UH but is currently prevented by the school’s rights being tied to the WAC agreement with ESPN.
ESPN’s cooperation on a couple of fronts would be important for any UH bid for independence since without the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, which ESPN subsidiary ESPN Regional TV (ERT) owns and operates, the school would have no conference affiliation to fall back on for a postseason bid.
In addition, ERT owns and operates the Diamond Head Classic basketball tournament, which UH hosts.
Without a conference tie for football, UH would have to scramble to fill the eight games a year (four home and four away) it is annually assured by the WAC and would have to pay guarantees.
Currently UH receives no money for conference road games but doesn’t have to pay WAC teams that play at Aloha Stadium, either.
People in the industry say UH would likely have to play a couple of so-called "body bag" road games at difficult-to-win places such Louisiana State or Texas for the large paychecks they would generate in order to fund the kind of guarantees that would bring even middle- and lower-tier opponents to Aloha Stadium.
Moreover, while UH has traditionally been able to attract nonconference opponents early in the season and at the end, it would be hard pressed to fill the October and November slots currently stocked by WAC teams because prospective opponents would also be in conference play.
But the key component in any bid for independence, even UH officials acknowledge, would be finding a home for its 16 sports other than football and men’s volleyball, which is in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
The best, closest and most likely fit would be the Big West, where the Rainbow Wahine teams competed from 1985 through ’95 before joining the WAC.
The nine-team Big West is composed of all California schools and, in some sports, such as women’s volleyball and baseball, would be an improvement on the WAC in competition while saving money and travel time.
Long Beach State and Pacific, especially, were fierce volleyball rivals for the Rainbow Wahine in the 1980s and ’90s.
"Hawaii certainly does have a great history with the Big West with their women’s programs and we have a great affinity for their program and people over the years," said Dennis Farrell, Big West commissioner for the past 30 years.
But Farrell said the Big West has a moratorium on expansion and hasn’t taken on a new member since 2001-02.
If they were willing to add UH, it could come with some form of travel subsidies, which UH doesn’t pay in the WAC.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson, long a booster of UH’s presence in the WAC, declined to speculate on the potential pluses and minuses of the school going independent, saying, "those are institutional decisions."