The autographed Tony Oliva bat in the Mountain West Conference’s Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters and trips to opening-day games are testament to commissioner Craig Thompson’s enduring passion for his hometown Minnesota Twins.
Being a life-long fan of the Twins, who have not won a World Series in nearly two decades, also has helped Thompson deal with the frustration that comes from the dogged pursuit of an automatic qualifying berth in the Bowl Championship Series for his league.
After years of watching the Twins be regularly disposed of by the New York Yankees in the postseason, Thompson knows well the uphill task of trying to crack the monolithic BCS.
"It is very similar," Thompson acknowledges. "It is kind of like we have gotten to a particular level, and we just can’t seem to bust through that next level and, unfortunately, we usually face the Yankees. So, there is some parallel there."
As the MWC completes its 12th football season and prepares for a major membership change, including the addition of the University of Hawaii in 2012, BCS automatic qualifying remains a major goal of the conference and an issue that helps drive its decision making, including expansion.
The MWC and BCS were born months apart in 1998, and Thompson, the only commissioner the MWC has had, has been the league’s point man pushing for BCS status before the U.S. Congress and athletic groups, a goal that drives a lot of what the 10-member conference does.
"The membership runs the league; they set the agendas and vision, and he (Thompson) puts it in place," said a conference spokesman. "It is the choice of the presidents on which direction they want to go. Though he may give them direction and options, it is the presidents who set policy."
To be sure, Thompson, who has been commissioner of the American South (1987-91) and Sun Belt (1991-98) conferences has embraced the MWC’s mission.
"I really enjoy the chess match that is the BCS," Thompson said. "I think we have tried to make performance count, and we’ve said that repeatedly. We’re playing and performing — and winning football games — more at a level of a BCS automatic qualifier than not. Certainly that will change to some degree (with membership), but not dramatically."
Automatic qualification guarantees the conference a representative in the lucrative BCS bowl system and a minimum $17 million annual payout. Currently, only the six so-called power conferences — Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern conferences — have automatic status.
The rest — MWC, Western Athletic, Conference USA, Mid American and Sun Belt conferences — are not guaranteed berths and, when they do get BCS slots, their payouts are about half as much as the automatic conferences.
With Utah and Texas Christian having earned BCS berths, Thompson has for several years pitched the MWC as an automatic-worthy conference to no avail. The impending loss of Utah to the Pac-10 and TCU to the Big East has made Boise State and Hawaii — both past BCS entrants — attractive enough to be invited to join the MWC along with Fresno State and Nevada.
Boise enters in July 2011, while UH and the rest come on board in 2012.
Thompson said, "Boise has been in a couple (BCS games), Hawaii has played in one, San Diego State is better, Air Force is better and Nevada is in the Top 25, so there is a lot of optimism."
The BCS is concluding the third year of a four-year cycle that is used to measure automatic qualifying status. A three-pronged evaluation is used, including Top 25 standings and highest-ranked champions, plus overall conference ranking.
Thompson said the MWC will use Boise State’s most recent (2009) BCS appearance in calculating its standing but not UH’s (2007).