"What do we do now?"
That was Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji’s plaintive inquiry at the conclusion of a day of stunning reversal of fortunes that left the University of Hawaii and its fans to ponder a shaky athletic future.
Shoji, a solitary figure exiting the Stan Sheriff Center, could have been the spokesman for a school and a conference staggered by the defection of two more members, Fresno State and Nevada, to the rival Mountain West yesterday.
The loss, coupled with the announced departure of Boise State in June, could leave the WAC with six members — two below the minimum to qualify for NCAA Division I automatic playoff berths in all sports except football — in 2012 unless additional teams are added. Boise is scheduled to join the MWC in 2011 and it was uncertain if Fresno and Nevada will go in 2011 or ’12.
What was obvious from faces and body language was that, "It is devastating," said Jim Donovan, UH athletic director. "There’s no positive spin I can put on this in the short term. We’re going to look at our options and move forward."
Original conference: Arizona, Arizona State, Brigham Young, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah
1967: UTEP joins
Donovan said those options would include: remaining in a realigned, diluted WAC; moving to a different conference; going independent in football and placing its other 18 sports in another conference or conferences; or going independent in all sports.
But Donovan acknowledged there are "no ongoing" talks with any other conferences. He said inquiries to the Pac-10 have brought no interest. MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said yesterday, "Hawaii has been part of the conversation in the past" but suggested there may be no need to add an additional team to reach 12. "There is no timeline at this point. (We) may not ever get to 12. There has been no pledge or commitment to get to 12."
It was a bitter end to a day that had a euphoric beginning in Manoa, where officials and coaches were exultant over reports that Brigham Young was preparing to leave the MWC and rejoin the WAC after a 10-year absence. BYU, a founding member of the WAC in 1962, left in 1999, helping found the MWC, but it became disillusioned when it was passed over for membership by the Pac-10 and Big 12 in June.
In response, the Cougars have been considering going independent in football and joining the WAC in other sports. Talks had been on-going with an announcement expected as soon as today.
The prospect was seen as a boon for the WAC in general and UH in particular, which would have benefited across the board in the return of its once keen rival. Negotiations had reportedly led to the likelihood of annual meetings in football for UH and BYU with an ESPN component, according to people involved in the process.
Basketball, Wahine volleyball and baseball also would have greatly benefited from the level of competition and brand-name value of the Cougars.
But by late afternoon, when 11th-hour retaliatory offers by the MWC to Fresno State and Nevada met with acceptance, the mood turned dour.
"It was a 180-degree turn," Donovan said. "It was like you’re going in for a touchdown and throw an interception at the goal line and the other team returns it for a touchdown."
Now, not only is the WAC to be down three of its four most prominent members, BYU’s status is now uncertain.
A BYU spokesman said, "We are aware of the many media reports and questions circulating about BYU’s conference alignment. As Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe explained recently, BYU has been reviewing, and will continue to explore, every option to advance its athletic program. At this point, BYU has no further comment."
Manoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw did not respond to requests for comment. WAC Commissioner Karl Benson, who had been traveling yesterday, said he will make a statement today.
Thompson, the MWC commissioner, denied the invitations to Fresno and Nevada were designed to cripple the WAC. "No," Thompson maintained. "We were simply looking to get better."
But Thompson acknowledged the talks had developed only in the previous "36 to 48 hours." He said they were, in large part, driven by TV and came after consultations yesterday with TV partners Comcast and CBS following an early morning trip to Philadelphia.
Fresno has the 55th-ranked TV market while Honolulu is 71st and Reno 108th.
When Boise State grew closer to the MWC in June, sources say Benson went back to several former WAC members, reportedly including Texas-El Paso, San Diego State and Nevada-Las Vegas inquiring about their interest in rejoining the WAC.
And when the Pac-10 took BYU’s rival, Utah, instead of the Cougars and the Big 12 passed as well, Benson reportedly took an "action plan" to the WAC Board of Directors built around BYU and discussions with ESPN.
Utah State President Stan Albrecht is said to have been the go-between. When BYU came back to the WAC and asked for guarantees in terms of a minimum number of games for its football team and other considerations, the WAC readily agreed.
BYU is said to have sought annual games with UH and Utah State to help fill out its football schedule.
Based upon BYU’s interest, Benson went back to the WAC Board of Directors this month and sought a "solidarity pact" with members pledging to remain in the conference despite expected MWC overtures. A $5 million per school price was established as a "penalty" and at least six of the eight schools (Boise State was not included) signed on per WAC policy.
Thompson said the MWC will "support" Fresno State and Nevada’s financial situation saying, "We’re not gonna bankrupt" the incoming teams.
Donovan left open the possibility the WAC may pursue legal action against the defectors, saying his comments yesterday were guarded, "because there may be legal ramifications … there are issues out there."
When the 16-team WAC broke up after eight teams left to form the MWC in 1999, the WAC retained a Colorado law firm but ultimately did not take action. UH officials later said they regretted not following through.
Donovan suggested UH, which has been running an annual deficit of approximately $2 million and an accumulated net deficit of $10 million, could take an additional financial beating from the latest changes. He said securing teams to fill out football and basketball pukas left by the departures could involve costly guarantees.
"This is fiscal year 2011 and I thought we could be breaking even in fiscal year 2012 before this happened, so this is a huge curveball in terms of the financial expenses we might face," Donovan said.
"There’s nothing we can do about our geography; we’re not going to get any closer to the (continent)," Donovan said.
Suddenly the 2,500 miles that separates UH from its closest major-college opponents seemed even longer yesterday.