Twelve years ago, as Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson lay in a darkened room in his Colorado home recovering from retinal surgery, a mutinous handful of presidents met clandestinely at the Denver airport and plotted the breakup of the conference.
That experience, which saw eight of the 16 schools break away and form what became the Mountain West Conference, helped forge Benson’s resolve to rebuild the conference in his tenure and reinforced the belief that Brigham Young University, one of the self-serving drivers in the breakup, could, when its interests merged, similarly be the key to its revival.
So when expansion began moving across the college landscape this year, Benson sensed an opening in BYU’s smoldering disaffection, one that had the potential to reverse the tumultuous events of 1998.
Thus began what became known internally as "The Project" — a bold, multi-step plan that was within hours of recasting the WAC as the foremost non-Bowl Championship Series conference when it was torpedoed from within. Curiously, "The Project" got its name from Nevada president Milton Glick, one of the eventual saboteurs.
E-mails and memos obtained by the Star-Advertiser as well as interviews and other published reports combine to paint a picture of a conference that, even as critics were bashing it for the perception of failing to be proactive, was aggressively swinging for the fences.
Ultimately the plan came apart when two members, Fresno State and Nevada, bolted just days after agreeing to solidarity pledges. A "devastating 180-degree turn," Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan termed it.
It began with the WAC envisioning bringing back not only BYU — which has yet to be been ruled out despite the defections — but in domino-like succession San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas and Texas-El Paso for a 12-team league in football.
UH was told on June 18 that as a result of Benson’s "preliminary discussions with ESPN" the TV rights fees could rise by as much as "300 percent" over the nearly $500,000 per school that is being received now, according to a memo obtained by the Star-Advertiser.
In addition, there was thought to approaching basketball power Gonzaga and, perhaps, one other non-football member for a 14-team basketball league. Moreover, there was hope that Boise State, confronted with the changing conferences, might reconsider its move to the MWC.
Boise State’s announced move to the MWC on June 11 was not a surprise. Nor was the immediate torrent of criticism of Benson and the member presidents that followed.
Callers to radio stations and online posters roasted the WAC, saying the conference was resigned to lower-tier status. "I’ve been working on my golf game," Benson sarcastically told a reporter who had questioned him about the conference’s response.
Actually, e-mails suggest, he was waiting for the other shoe to drop — the exit of Utah from the MWC that would give the WAC an opening to approach BYU.
When BYU was passed over by both the Pac-10 and the Big 12, the Cougars, who already had been frustrated by the MWC’s TV contract and exposure, fumed and began looking at options.
E-mails seen by the Star-Advertiser say Benson took his plan to the WAC Board of Directors, which authorized him to proceed with Utah State president Stan Albrecht, a former BYU administrator, being point man. Initially, according to correspondence, the Cougars weren’t interested in discussing a return to the WAC.
But Benson suggested another run at BYU later when the shock wore off and the Cougars began looking at alternatives, e-mails read. When Albrecht reconnected with BYU, the school was already exploring the possibility of going independent in football and looking for somewhere to park its other 18 teams.
The WAC wanted BYU’s name and the presence of its other teams, men’s basketball especially. BYU, if it was to go independent, wanted a guarantee of four to six WAC opponents to help fill out its football schedule and a relationship to build its own in-house and ESPN TV package around.
Home-and-home football series with UH and Utah State were to be components of scheduling.
When Benson stood before the news media at the annual WAC Football Preview in Salt Lake City on July 27, he was peppered with questions about the conference’s expansion plans.
Benson said little but conceded later, "I was biting my tongue. There was so much I wanted to say (because) I felt we were already on the tip of something big."
When Benson mentioned the possibility of BYU returning to the WAC during a telephone conversation, UTEP athletic director Bob Stull said he initially thought the whole concept "was kinda out there, to tell the truth" because he didn’t foresee the Cougars leaving a league they had helped create.
But then, Stull said, Benson hinted not only was it in the works but "’there might be some more changes.’"
Stull said there was no offer or a promise of one at the time. "It (the conversation) was what it was," Stull said.
Benson, according to documents, was laying the groundwork for what he hoped would be the return of the Miners to the WAC after a seven-year absence. According to e-mails, he planned to talk to UTEP officials and Conference USA about a "trade" of sorts to make it happen.
Benson’s avowed goal, according to memos, was UTEP’s return to the WAC, where it had spent 37 years. In return, Louisiana Tech would go to C-USA, which has been its goal since leaving the Sun Belt in 2001.
Benson also contacted San Diego State athletic director Jim Sterk. Sterk told the San Diego Union-Tribune, "… it was, ‘what if something happens?’ We’re an attractive member, so if things changed they wanted San Diego State to be in play if you will …"
Protocol dictated that Benson notify C-USA, which Benson did, calling commissioner Britton Banowsky and informing him of the conversation and possible changes. It was someone at C-USA, people involved surmise, who might have tipped Thompson about the rapidly accelerating moves afoot.
BYU, according to documents, was preparing to announce its move to the WAC on Aug. 18 or 19.
Meanwhile, despite rumblings, Thompson had shown little sign, WAC sources said, that he had connected the dots on BYU’s thinking and the WAC’s plans. A spokesman for the MWC declined comment on when — or how — Thompson became aware of BYU’s intentions.
But soon after the Banowsky conversation Thompson spoke to members of the MWC and was on a plane to Philadelphia with Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, chair of the MWC, to talk to the conference’s TV partners, Comcast and CBS.
Thompson insisted in June, with the addition of Boise State, the MWC was finished with expansion. "I don’t anticipate for several years to come being anything other than a nine-member conference. We are done," he said.
But BYU feared the MWC might make a retaliatory move to thwart the Cougars’ plan. A memorandum of understanding called for WAC schools to make a pledge to stay together for at least five years unless they were offered membership in a Bowl Championship Series automatic qualifying conference. Various penalties for withdrawal were tossed around, but the members settled on $5 million. Later, Benson would say, "I wish it had been $20 million."
But first, before Fresno State president John Welty would sign, he wanted a deal whereby the Cougars guaranteed the Bulldogs some games. He got it, and Welty made the motion for adoption of the solidarity pact, with all seven members (Boise was excluded) eventually giving their assent.
"All the signatures are in place. I don’t think either John (Welty) or Milt (Glick) has $5 million to buy their way out," Albrecht observed in an e-mail obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune.
But four days later, Fresno State and Nevada, faced with membership offers by the MWC, were gone.
In an Aug. 18 e-mail to the WAC Board quoted by the Tribune, Benson wrote: "(We) watched the ‘project’ disintegrate due to the unethical and selfish actions of two college presidents. As I am sure you know by now, Fresno State and Nevada have accepted invitations to join the Mt. West Conference. I know you all have to be devastated by what has occurred. In a 12-hour period, the WAC went from having secured a prosperous future to now not knowing what the future will be."