By Chadd Cripe
© 2010 Idaho Statesman
Columnist Brian Murphy and I met with Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson on Sept. 18 in Laramie, Wyo., before the Boise State-Wyoming football game.
We ran a condensed version of that interview in today's Idaho Statesman. Read it here.
Below, you'll find the full interview, which includes a few items we previously reported and some comments that just didn't fit in the newspaper. The only topic not included here is TV — we reported on the 18th that Thompson said no major changes in the TV deal were expected.
Here's the Q&A:
Do you want Nevada and Fresno State to join the Mountain West in 2011 instead of 2012?
“I think that’s a natural. As soon as decisions like that are made, once you’ve made that decision, you’ve emotionally separated and you’re ready to move on. Your fans want you to move on.”
You’ve said you prefer a nine-game conference schedule. Air Force has said it prefers eight. How do you see that working out?
“Air Force is kind of the outlier. And I understand exactly their position — Army, Navy, nine conference games. Are they going to play Oklahoma or are they going to play Northwestern State? They’re going to have to make that decision. They don’t want to have to make that decision. I get it completely. But I think everybody else is pretty much saying nine.”
“It’s partially financial. You don’t have to pay … whatever the game fee is. It’s a free game. It naturally makes sense (as a conference). That’s the true winner, you played everybody. What happens if hypothetically TCU and Boise State don’t play or you don’t play one of them? You say, ‘Well, wait a minute, you won the conference but you didn’t have to play Boise State. That’s not right.’ ”
What do you hope to accomplish from your talks with Conference USA?
“Scheduling (arrangements), perhaps. Probably more the BCS than anything. There’s been arguably for 18, 24 months nine Mountain West Conference schools and (Boise State president) Bob Kustra and (athletic director) Gene Bleymaier barking up the BCS tree. There’s 10 of us. Get more people. Get Tulsa and get (Tulane president) Scott Cowen back involved and get East Carolina, whomever. It’s (22 schools) — then if you start thinking in those numbers, well (22) of 120, that’s a pretty good percentage. That’s really my interest in it and I suspect C-USA’s. Just trying to again push the needle, affect change in the college postseason and BCS.”
How do you approach trying to change the BCS now that your league’s rankings have been weakened by the Utah and BYU departures?
“I’m pretty excited about the future. I’m very optimistic. Boise State has won two BCS bowl games. TCU has played in one. Nevada is doing something. Fresno State opened the season (by beating Cincinnati). Air Force. We’ve still got some juice in the discussion. As you know, it’s very important that your top teams perform, which there’s been no question they have. Our issue has been the computer ranking of the overall depth. You can’t afford a lot of one- and two-win teams. We’ve got a lot of the TCUs, Boise States and Air Forces — those you would presume are going to continue to perform at a very high level.”
Do your discussions with Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky mean you’re not likely to add Houston?
“I think it jumped out there real quick. He just came in to have lunch. We had planned it like two months ago. … We need them to be as strong. It does come into play a little bit. If Houston is going to be a Top 25 team, well I need them barking up (at the BCS). We’re just trying to get more people engaged and make points.”
Is 10 teams where you’d like to stay?
“I think right now 10 makes sense. We haven’t even gotten to 10. We’ve got a lot of moving parts just to get to 10. Let’s get there. And certainly getting there is contingent upon Fresno State and Nevada.”
Financially, you can’t afford to add teams, can you?
“That goes back to television. Television hasn’t said we’re going to increase you 20 percent, absolutely.”
Already, your existing members are going to have to get by with less conference revenue, right?
“They might. Hopefully the basketball tournament increases a little bit. The chances are there for additional NCAA basketball units. Nevada has been in the tournament a little bit. It’s too early to tell. But on the pure value you go from nine to 10 (teams) and don’t increase any of that, you’re going to pay back less.”
You aren’t talking about a merger with Conference USA, right?
So how realistic is an interconference championship game?
“Two things come into play. One, you have to get something to play for from a BCS perspective. And there have been no presentations. … There was lunch. We have a couple presidents from both sides that will continue to discuss it. And the other side is it’s going to take NCAA legislative relief or else you’re only going to play 11 games and count that as your 12th and that’s probably not going to happen.”
What about Conference USA’s championship game?
“And they probably have to get rid of their championship game to accommodate that. There’s a lot of moving parts there.”
The only incentive would be if the BCS makes a guarantee, right?
“That’s the major incentive. As you guys get to know me better, I’ve made no bones for 12 years — part of every day is BCS, to get this group of schools guaranteed annual access. I don’t know if you watch ‘GameDay’ and stuff. (Host) Chris Fowler seems to come over and say, ‘What’s with this labeling? It just makes no sense anymore.’ … When does that go away? We all hear the argument you guys predominantly covering Boise State hear, ‘They would finish whatever in whatever league.’ Well, what would Minnesota finish in the Mountain West? It’s an old argument, quite frankly, because on-the-field performance has proven it’s really mixed, at worst. Who’s better — TCU or Baylor? Baylor’s in a BCS league. … The last Alabama game I was at, Utah beat them by four touchdowns. But the thing is, I do agree, the SEC is pretty special. But the Pac-10 — some of those guys playing eight games in the Mountain West, I don’t know. We’ve performed pretty well. Boise State has performed pretty well.”
If Boise State and TCU are undefeated late in the season, how vocal will you be about these teams needing a chance at the title?
“I’ve got to really be careful and respectful. I’m thrilled to death about Boise State coming into the league, but they’re in another league right now. I’ll do some things but I’m not going to get behind a pulpit.”
Will you lobby for TCU over Boise State?
“I don’t really lobby. We know those bowl people, too, and here’s what we’ll say: ‘Let’s get right down to it. Boise State sells 20-some-thousand tickets. TCU sells 20 (thousand). Utah sells tickets.’ Because that was part of the (argument) early on — ‘You can play, but do you act like us? Can you sell tickets? Are you marketable?’ Yes, yes and yes. The TV ratings are there. Attendance is there.”
Why is the BCS so important to you — the money, the exposure, the labeling?
“Obviously the money’s important. As a participant, TCU, Boise State or Utah is getting about half a unit of what the other guys get automatically. So money is a factor, but I think it plays on everything else. The labeling … Vanderbilt’s BCS and Boise State’s not? Washington State? I think the perception and the labeling and dismissal (are important) and then (Wyoming coach) Dave Christensen can walk across to wherever he goes and say, ‘Oh yeah, you play here, we go to a BCS bowl if we win this league.’ You can kind of say that now, but it’s not guaranteed. I guarantee you Washington State, they go into a kid’s home and say, ‘If you come here, we’ll go to the Rose Bowl.’ You’re not going to the Rose Bowl, but you can say that. … I think that’s a big part of it, just getting that label off and saying hey, we’ve been slowly — we meaning the Mountain West, Boise State and a lot of (non-BCS) schools — we have been proving we can play with you on the football field but the distinction, the gap is so large.”
People already are saying Boise State has peaked in the polls. Do you think the system will allow Boise State or TCU to play in the title game?
“Absolutely I think they can play for a national championship, but there’s no margin for error, there’s very little wiggle room. I’m frustrated by hearing the arguments about the Virginia Tech game because they lost to James Madison. Now wait a minute, that was a singular game, it was a great performance, tremendously appealing to the nation. I just call it lousy Virginia Tech scheduling. What the hell are you playing a game five days later against an instate rival for? What are you thinking? That was a heck of a single game.”
Your league has been so stable. Now you’re in a transition period with two teams leaving and three entering. How do you handle that?
“What you do is you adjust — you accept it. Would we have rather had the 10-team league that was envisioned back in June? You can’t answer that question because it’s hypothetical. It’s not going to happen. It didn’t happen. What you have is three new members coming in with a core group of six that had been here, six plus TCU, which has been around a half-decade. That’s what you have. It’s a card game and those are the cards that you’ve got. … We’ve got a lot to sell and a lot to talk about and we’ll be fine.”
Did it make you smile when Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada beat BCS-conference teams?
“That is not the argument. Basically it’s the contractual relationship you have with one of those four (BCS) bowls. Everybody but the Big East has a bowl tie-in. That’s where we need to get because then all this goes away. It doesn’t matter. … We’re performing. We just need to get to that next level where we’re appealing enough that (a bowl) says, ‘We’ll take you guys.’ ”
Have you talked to the BCS bowls about a tie-in?
“Always. We’ve always brought it up and talked about it. There’s no, ‘Here’s what we can commit to doing.’ But we’re building a track record.”
So would you be in favor of making the Cotton Bowl a sixth BCS game?
“Absolutely. … All I’m about is anything that gets the Mountain West champion annually in a BCS bowl. Whatever mechanism that is. That’s what we started and that’s what I’ll quit breathing on.”
Other than the BCS, what is important to the Mountain West?
“I think rivalries are really important. There is some history with Boise State, a frustrating history since we’ve won one game against Boise State as a Mountain West. I say that in jest — there’s going to be some great rivalries. That’s the backbone of college sports and I think we’ve lost a little bit of that when Oklahoma and Nebraska are not even in the same league and aren’t going to play anymore. I presume BYU-Utah will keep playing — I don’t know. As you go through all this, and you think about what is college athletics, it’s making fun of your school, and my alma mater, and harassment. Colorado State and Wyoming are 67 miles apart and they’ve been playing for 110 years. Those things are important.”
You spoke proudly about your liberal exit policy. Will that be changing?
“That’s got a real chance of changing. It’s just the way the world works. The economic perspective. We were in a position where nobody was going to go anywhere probably anyway. Maybe we had outgrown it a couple years ago, but we definitely passed it, that now we’ve got to put something in there to at least give a financial pause if not something else. They’re going to go where they want to go.”
What will that policy look like — a big financial penalty? A long waiting period?
“We’ve got everybody’s exit policy. Ill just lay that on the feet of the board and ‘tell me what you want to do with it.’ That will be an agenda item this year.”
What happened in that 24 to 48 hours surrounding the invitations of Nevada and Fresno State?
“I learned of BYU’s decision (to join the WAC) … on a Tuesday prior to the Friday when they were all going to sign, seal and deliver it. … Probably in retrospect, I was dead tired because we had just gone to Philadelphia and had an all-nighter and I flew back and had that press conference (the next week after the invitations). I probably should have said, ‘Well sure, it was in reaction to that.’ I knew of (the BYU plans) so we started talking and thinking. … It was such a different ride because way back in January and February, people were thinking BYU and TCU to the Big 12. … Then there was a time, 48-72 hours, when I honestly thought we had a legitimate conversation with the Big 12 remnants. And now fast forward to the whole week of Jackson Hole. (Inviting Boise State) that was inevitable. It didn’t diminish our interest in Boise State at all as you ultimately saw. Utah announces a week later to the Pac-10. The BYU thing was a surprise. ‘What do we need to do to solidify and fortify.’
“There’s probably, this is one man’s opinion, it probably makes sense that there’s a Pacific-10 Conference and another Western FBS league. That could be a 12-team league, a 16-team league, a 10-team league, a nine-team league, I don’t know how many teams. And I’m not disparaging the WAC at all, but there’s a grouping of 16, 18, 20 FBS schools other than the Pac-10 — and the marketplace and television and others probably say there’s room for a second. We’ve set ourselves in a position where we can perform well and succeed and be a strong second Western conference.”
Would the WAC have come after UNLV and San Diego State?
“I know they approached those two institutions and they didn’t have an interest.”
Would they have left once BYU moved to the WAC?
“I don’t think so, but I never asked them that question.”
If there’s only room for two leagues, what of the WAC? You don’t have room for those teams, right?
“I might be the only one with that opinion, so please emphasize this is Thompson’s opinion. This is not his membership, not his board of directors. … I can’t be everything for all. I’m employed and paid to be concerned with our soon-to-be 10 members. They may come back and at one of the first meetings we have say we’ve got to get to 12, we have to get a championship game. I don’t know where the future is going to take it.”