With the deadline coming today for conferences to sign off and in on ESPN's nearly half-billion-dollar deal with the BCS, starting after the 2010 regular season, the Mountain West should have simply told the network and the BCS to pound sand.
It should have passed on the signing and made a real statement.
Instead, it caved, under duress, maybe even under protest.
The conference already had taken a proactive role in providing alternate proposals to the current system, a system for crowning a national champion that it properly sees as elitist and unfair.
En route, the league has gained notoriety and public favor around the country among football fans for taking a stand.
It could have been the lone wolf, the single flag-bearer, the last man standing, the solitary voice calling for change in a crowded room of noisy conspirators and greedy men.
All right, it might not have been that noble, considering the Mountain West ultimately wants its cut of the enormous stack of cash generated by college football, but fair is fair -- competitively and economically -- and the BCS is a far cry from that.
How could it be when 0-12 Washington takes more money out of the deal than 11-2 TCU or 10-3 BYU, even in a year when Mountain West champion Utah breaks into the BCS vaults for a bigger-than-usual haul?
If the league had gutted up and followed its complaints, its extending of alternatives by refusing to sign the new contract, it would have taken some hits, many of them financial, but it would have gained in even bigger doses something that in the long run could have helped it more: credibility.
"From a PR standpoint, they're gaining a lot of credibility, but they're separating themselves from the other conferences," said Stewart Mandel, noted college football columnist for SI.com, before the MWC signed. "We all know the overwhelming majority of the public -- 70 or 80 percent -- disapprove [of the BCS]. They want a playoff. They're frustrated, and don't know how to get it. From a public standpoint, they appreciate that somebody's standing up for it."
That stand, if the conference hadn't signed, would have cost each league school hundreds of thousands of dollars. According to the terms of the current contract, in years when no non-automatic-qualifying conference team makes a BCS bowl, Mountain West programs get somewhere around $200,000 to $300,000, according to a league source. When a team from a non-automatic-qualifying conference outside the Mountain West makes a BCS bowl, because of a provision for fund sharing, MWC teams each receive in the neighborhood of $500,000.
This past season, after Utah busted the BCS, league teams got some $900,000, and the Utes took their share of between $3 and $4 million.
Doing the right thing would have been expensive.
But it also could have been profitable by leading to equitable change, especially when the league was change's clear captain.
In the end, when everybody comes to their senses and a responsible playoff is installed, providing equal opportunity for all teams and creating an authentic national champion, a previously unhappy and unsatisfied college football nation would have looked to a modest bunch of yahoos out West and acknowledged them for poking the monster until it succumbed to fairness and good reason.
Mandel said the Mountain West already has caught the notice of the nation for its role in pushing back against the BCS after Utah's snub this past season, with its pronouncements and proposals and Senate hearings led by Orrin Hatch.
"It's interesting that this is getting so much publicity; it's a credit to the Mountain West," he said, noting that he might have expected such attention had the furor been prompted by a snubbed team in the SEC or the Big 12.
That attention is being paid by everyone but ESPN.
On Tuesday afternoon, when news calling for probes into the BCS came from the Senate hearings, making headlines on all the major sports Web sites, ESPN.com was an exception. There was no mention of the hearings on its home page, only on the site's college football page.
Interesting, the conflicts that bubble up when a network supposedly in the sports journalism business finds itself neck-deep in the money at hand.
When the Mountain West signed the deal, suddenly that story was headlined on ESPN.com. Mandel did not say it would have been wise for the Mountain West to take a hard stand and refuse to sign the ESPN/BCS agreement: "They would be on the outside looking in," he said. "It would be awfully tough to take on the fight on their own."
But I did.
The enormous publicity that would have been generated by the strong stand of a lone dissenter, a single conference, a band of schools who know they are right, who know their best athletes and teams are good enough, despite the disadvantages put upon them by an unjust system, to compete with more advantaged teams from more advantaged conferences, would have been loud.
Playing the role of the martyr, the gutsy little victim wouldn't have hurt, either.
It wasn't going to happen. It didn't happen.
But it would have been a watershed event if it had.