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Ferd's Words

WAC needs to hold defectors accountable for their treason

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When Fresno State and Nevada broke ranks last week and announced they were bolting the Western Athletic Conference for the Mountain West, commissioner Karl Benson branded the deserters as "selfish."

University of Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan decried the trampling of "collegiality" while others fumed and cursed.

Yet, for all the official indignation, you wonder if the schools kicked to the curb in the latest breakup have learned anything from their painful past? Has history given them clarity and stiffened their resolve?

If not, they’d be advised to place a call to Kenneth Mortimer, a former UH president, who could set them straight on their next course of action.

Mortimer, as chair of the WAC Board of Directors in 1998, pushed for the conference to take the so-called "breakaway eight" (Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah and Wyoming) to court for the manner in which they jumped ship and the damage that resulted.

The WAC, then as now, is more than a league; it is also a corporation registered in Colorado in which members are parties in a partnership and bound by laws.

In 1998, "I believed that we had sufficient documentation that they were in violation of the law and I think it was a felony," Mortimer recalled in a phone conversation yesterday. "The argument would have been that (they) conspired to do harm to the other institutions and that conspiracy is a violation of federal statutes."

Believing that the deserting members illegally went about their departure and formation of the Mountain West, in the process damaging the WAC, the WAC hired a law firm to pursue legal action.

But in the 11th hour, because not enough of the remaining schools had the stomach for a suit, in part due to political and cost considerations, nothing was filed. "I always thought that we should have (gone ahead)," Mortimer said. "(But) my colleagues did not agree."

The WAC eventually saw the errors — and resulting costs — of that decision when the TV contract it had negotiated with ESPN went to the upstart MWC instead. The WAC has yet to make up the millions it lost in that one.

Now, with the departure of Fresno State and Nevada on top of Boise State, the WAC might be lucky to salvage more than a quarter of the current $4.5 million annual ESPN deal.

Had the WAC persisted in its suit — and prevailed — in the last go-around you wonder if this latest mutiny would have gone down as it did. Would Fresno State and Nevada have dared to be part of a solidarity pledge only to weasel out? Would Fresno State president John Welty have made the motion to ask for a solidarity pledge and then been among the first to walk away from it?

We’ll never know, of course. But it should be food for thought as what is left of the WAC goes about its deliberations. We’re told the remaining schools have had at least two lengthy sessions with their legal counsel since the ambush went down, and the hope is they are talking about more than how to collect the $5 million buyout fees due them.

"All I know about (the current breakaway) is what I read in the papers," Mortimer said. "But my advice to them now would be: consult your lawyers and back your commissioner."

If the WAC sits on its hands this time, it deserves what has befallen it.

Reach Ferd Lewis at


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