College athletics: WAC's Benson has another challenge on his hands
During a Western Athletic Conference preseason football gathering a few years ago, Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley, Hawaii's June Jones and others praised commissioner Karl Benson for keeping the far-flung league together.
Since Benson took the job in 1994, a total of 22 schools have belonged to the WAC -- a diverse group stretching from Ruston, La., to Moscow, Idaho, to Honolulu.
Few athletic administrators have faced the challenges Benson tackled over the past 16 years, and none have done a better job.
It's happened so regularly," Benson says, "I've gotten pretty well-suited to deal with it."
When Utah, BYU and six other schools broke away and formed the Mountain West Conference in 1999, Benson calmly steered the WAC through a hurricanelike storm that probably should have shipwrecked it.
Six years later, SMU, Rice, Tulsa and UTEP left for Conference USA and Benson again retooled his league.
He did it well enough to earn the adulation of coaches like Dooley and Jones who, in the end, parlayed their time in Benson's conference-that-wouldn't-die into jobs that pay life-changing amounts of money.
Last winter, Dooley signed a six-year contract at Tennessee, with a starting annual salary of $1.8 million.
Meanwhile, Jones left Hawaii after its Sugar Bowl season in 2007. He signed a five-year, $10 million contract at SMU that has already been extended through 2014.
Do you think Dooley and Jones appreciate Benson's tireless efforts to keep the WAC afloat?
And what about the hundreds of other coaches, athletes, administrators and fans who have benefited from their association with WAC schools over the years?
Of course, the landscape of college athletics is changing, leaving Benson with more work to do.
On Friday, Boise State was accepted into the Mountain West Conference.
Boise has been the WAC's flagship and replacing the Broncos could be Benson's greatest challenge, given the lack of obvious candidates.
The good news for the WAC?
If the Mountain West expands to 12 or 16 teams, it won't be coming back for Fresno State, Nevada or Utah State, according to commissioner Craig Thompson.
The bad news: Big Sky power Montana, a logical replacement for Boise, has shown little enthusiasm to make the costly step.
It's possible Benson could approach a couple of schools left homeless by the Big 12 implosion, although Baylor or Iowa State probably would rather join the Mountain West or Conference USA.
The WAC has also reportedly reached out to MWC members San Diego State and UNLV, should those schools seek a change of address.
But that is unlikely, too.
Benson will likely have to think outside the box to replace Boise and look at the potential of programs like Portland State, Sacramento State or Cal-Davis. Another possibility is Texas-San Antonio.
No matter what happens, the WAC will survive.
Karl Benson plans on seeing to it.
"We can withstand the loss of one school, regardless of which one it is," he said. "We are well-positioned to move on without Boise."
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