Many in Warrior World don’t like Karl Benson. You have your reasons. You believe the WAC commissioner is incompetent, always a step behind. Never proactive, always a day late and a buck short. You hated that he supported Herman Frazier.
And some of you see him as always favoring Boise State, because he went to school there, and always putting the screws to Hawaii somehow (if this is you, please resume taking your paranoia meds; Boise State has gotten to where it’s at for one reason — its functional and exceptional system).
Over the past few months, I’ve taken some shots at the WAC and the job Benson has done (or, maybe you might want to say, not done). But if you deal with him, you know he’s a good person — and, as a conference commissioner, he’s saved his ship from sinking with little more than duct tape so many times we’ve lost count.
"We’re going to miss him," one of the guys said the other day in the sports department, when we were talking about the transition out of the WAC. Why? Because Benson might be the most accessible and helpful public official any of us has ever dealt with, good times or bad.
Benson was at Aloha Stadium on Friday for the Hawaii Bowl — so relaxed now that he pointed out he wore shorts to a WAC sports event for the first time.
True to form, he agreed to my interview request for the next day, which was Christmas.
"Karl is a good, good man," said Natalie Meisler of the Denver Post, who met Benson in 1994 while covering Colorado State and the WAC. "I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like him. And people forget the WAC has had a lot of great moments after the (Mountain West) breakaway."
Maybe he’s too nice of a guy for his own good, and too open with reporters and others. Benson’s plan to bring BYU to the WAC may have been wrecked by the Mountain West’s pre-emptive strike of grabbing Nevada and Fresno State because too many people knew about it.
"Have I been burned? Of course, on occasion," Benson said. "But being open and forthright has more positives than negatives."
THE GAME HAS changed since Benson first ran a league, the Mid-American Conference in 1990.
"In the early 1990s the role started changing to being more about enterprise and a corporate CEO, creating revenue. Before it was running championship events and enforcing rules," he said.
Benson said "a strong suit" of his in those days was "marketing and promotion vehicles." Now, with back-room dealing and alliance making and breaking as the norm, it’s all about negotiations — much of the work is secretive by necessity. Unfortunately for Benson, this doesn’t always match up with his traits of accessibility and openness.
"I’m a much more external person than an internal person," he said.
But he’s also resilient and creative, and that’s why he’s been able to save the WAC so many times. Can he do it again?
"The WAC has had to reinvent itself in my 16 years, three, now four times," he said. "This may be the most serious challenge. There’s not the pool of potential schools ready to move."
Benson said if the WAC and Mountain West had worked together two years ago, perhaps to re-combine, things would be better now for both. While the WAC is on life support, the Mountain West’s gambit to become prettier for the BCS stalled with the departures of BYU, TCU and Utah. And there’s no guarantee Boise State will stay long.
Through it all, Benson has managed to remain friends with Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson.
"We’ve been put in a difficult situation. It seems like it’s always WAC vs. Mountain West, Benson vs. Thompson." Benson said. "There’s mutual respect and we enjoy each other’s company. We get together socially on occasion."
Meisler, who now covers the Mountain West, has known Thompson since 1999. "They’re both men of superb character. Craig is very shrewd, and you really have to get to know him before he opens up," she said.
"The conferences were finally getting along, the scars healed from the breakup, then the Mountain West takes Boise State, the crown jewel," Meisler added. "If anyone deserves to cry in his beer, it’s Karl."
But he won’t. Another reinvention awaits.
Reach Dave Reardon at email@example.com.