The Honolulu Star-Advertiser has put together the most complete picture yet of the Western Athletic Conference's far-reaching and elaborate plan to recast the league as the foremost non-Bowl Championship Series conference. The plan — "The Project" as it became known internally — was torpedoed from within when co-conspirators Fresno State and Nevada decided at the 11th hour to bolt for the rival Mountain West on Aug. 18.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson, above, received authorization from the league's Board of Directors on June 16 to proceed with the plan, which centered on luring Brigham Young back to the WAC. This came after Benson had "preliminary discussions with ESPN" that indicated the TV rights fees could rise by as "300 percent" over the nearly $500,000 per school that is received now, according to a memo obtained by the newspaper.
Utah State president Stan Albrecht, a former BYU administrator, would work as Benson's point man. Albrecht approached BYU on June 18, but the school, still stinging from rival Utah being scooped up by the Pacific 10, was was not interested. The Cougars' stance softened over the next month, but only if it could join the league as a non-football member.
The plan was expanded to include San Diego State, Nevada Las Vegas and Texas El Paso. The Miners, currently members of Conference USA, would return to the WAC in a "trade," with C-USA getting WAC member Louisiana Tech, a better geographical fit for all parties involved. There were also discussions about approaching Gonzaga to help boost the profile of the new WAC in basketball.With BYU on board and the rest of the plan coming together, Benson contacted C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky to inform him of possible changes. Up to this point, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson had shown little sign of connecting the dots, and WAC officials now suspect Thompson was tipped off by someone with C-USA.
Thompson contacted Mountain West members and boarded a plane to Philadelphia with Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, chair of the Mountain West, to talk to the conference's TV partners, Comcast and CBS. When news broke of BYU's plan, Thompson reacted quickly by inviting Fresno State and Nevada to join the Mountain West. The schools accepted, and that's where we stand today, with the WAC on life support.
ESPN's interest in having BYU in the WAC was to "mitigate" the loss of Boise State, according to emails obtained by the Salt Lake Tribune. The newspaper has published several key emails that help chronicle how the WAC-BYU deal came to be before falling apart.
The emails generally show that presidents and athletic directors have been less than truthful in their public comments. Brian Murphy of the Idaho Statesman breaks it down in an excellent post.
On Friday, Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News posted a lengthy Q&A he had with ESPN executive Burke Magnus, who acknowledged the network's involvement in talks surrounding BYU and the WAC. Here is one exchange:Question: There are reports that ESPN and BYU talked about a deal for four BYU home game on ESPN for up to $4 million. Is that accurate?
Magnus: "I can only say our company statement. We had conversations with them."