SALT LAKE CITY » What was supposed to be a celebration of Western Athletic Conference football yesterday became a farewell party.
All of the feel-good announcements at the WAC Media Preview could not deflect the spotlight from Boise State, which is seceding from the WAC to join the Mountain West Conference in July 2011.
The Broncos are the jewel of the WAC, a status confirmed with their No. 1 ranking in polling of the league’s coaches and media.
During yesterday morning’s state-of-the-WAC address, commissioner Karl Benson lauded the Sept. 6 meeting between Boise State and Virginia Tech as the "biggest" regular-season, nonconference game in the league’s 48-year history.
Benson was forced into the awkward position of toasting a guest of honor that did not want to be there. But Benson, a Boise State alumnus, was left with few options.
Protest? He hinted that he might not attend the BSU-Virginia Tech game in Washington, D.C.
"I haven’t decided," he told reporters soon after his annual forum. By yesterday evening, he relented, conceding, "I’ll go."
Benson insisted the WAC, of which the University of Hawaii is the senior member, can function after Boise State departs from what is currently a nine-team league.
"Eight is a workable number," Benson said.
But Benson acknowledged there is a price to losing a program that has won seven of the past eight WAC titles. The WAC is in the second year of a seven-year ESPN contract in which it is paid a little more than $4 million annually. The terms may be altered if the membership changes.
ESPN will monitor the temperature of the WAC’s health.
"I expect there will be a reduction in either rights fee or distribution," Benson said, the latter referring to the number of guaranteed television appearances.
At stake is the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise. The WAC and the bowl have a multiyear agreement. What’s more, ESPN is a co-owner of the bowl, and Benson sits on the game’s board. But Benson conceded anything is possible.
Boise State’s departure also will create a puka in each WAC team’s schedule. Idaho head coach Robb Akey said he hopes the Broncos will continue their in-state rivalry game.
"I think they’re trying to get away from us," Akey said, smiling. "They felt the Vandals are getting better (and) ‘We’re going to go away before they get good.’"
Fresno State head coach Pat Hill said: "I don’t like losing Boise because I think they’re a very good program. I think they’ve done a very good job of representing this conference."
Benson said the WAC has had a history of rebounding from adversity. When eight WAC teams seceded to form the Mountain West Conference in 1999, Nevada enlisted as a replacement. When Texas Christian seceded in 2001, Boise State was invited.
Benson said the WAC’s athletic directors and presidents believed at the turn of the century, Nevada was ahead of Boise State.
Hill said the next "Boise" could emerge from the remaining WAC members.
"The resiliency in this conference, the ability to play at a high level, is good," Hill said. "There are plenty of teams in this league that will pick up the torch and move forward. I hate to see Boise go … (but) that’s the way it goes. They’ll move on, and our conference will move on."
When Southern Methodist, Texas-El Paso and Tulsa announced in 2004 they would leave the WAC, Benson noted, "The next day we added New Mexico State and Utah State. … We had them ready."
No replacements are currently in the wings, although there have been conversations from school’s "within the WAC’s footprint." Translation: There is interest from schools between the Southwest and the West Coast.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen acknowledged the target on the Broncos’ backs has widened. But Petersen said WAC opponents usually bring their best.
Petersen, who said he was not involved in the decision to change leagues, is focusing solely on this season.
"That’s all we’re thinking about," said Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, who is expected to receive consideration for the Heisman Trophy.
Benson said the WAC usually lets a player’s school handle the campaign.
Fresno State defensive end Chris Carter has his eyes on another prize.
"There’s a trophy that goes between (Boise and Fresno)," Carter said. "It’s a milk can. When they told me it was a milk can, I was like, ‘What? Come on.’ It’s real big. It’s nice. It’s engraved for all of the times we’ve played each other. We trade it back and forth. We have to beat them to get it back. It looks almost like the Stanley Cup. They’ve earned it the past couple of years. If we want it, we have to fight to get it back. This might be our last chance."
Akey, meanwhile, is not convinced Boise State is leaving for a better conference.
"I think you can take the WAC people here and the Mountain West people here, and you can go at it, toe to toe, and you could still be arguing 48 hours later which conference is stronger, which one is better," Akey said.