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WAC commish calls latest departures ‘selfish’
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Fresno State and Nevada should not expect any parting gifts from the other members of the Western Athletic Conference when the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack leave for the Mountain West.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson said on Thursday the departing schools will have to pay $5 million to his league and wait until 2012 to move after accepting the MWC's invitation and dismantling an agreement the WAC was on the verge of completing with BYU.
The Cougars were in line to rejoin the WAC in all sports other than football, in which BYU would have become an independent.
Benson called Fresno State and Nevada's decision "selfish."
"In a 12-hour period, the WAC went from having a secure and prosperous future to once again not knowing what the future will hold," Benson said in a conference call.
The WAC had already lost Boise State to the MWC earlier this summer, then on Wednesday both Fresno State and Nevada received and accepted invitations to join the Mountain West _ less than a week after WAC members formed a buyout pact intended to keep what was left of the league intact.
Although Nevada did not actually sign the buyout agreement and loyalty pledge, Benson said WAC lawyers believe the Wolf Pack are still subject to the terms of the deal and will seek the money, due 60 days from Wednesday.
"I recommended (the buyout) to the board. I wish at this time I had made it $20 million," Benson said.
And because Fresno State and Nevada didn't declare they were leaving before July 1, Benson said both are obligated to the WAC until 2012. Letting the schools go in time for next season will be up to the remaining six WAC schools.
"Only if the WAC believes that it would be in the WAC's best interest that there would be an early out, would there be an early out," Benson said.
In the meantime, the WAC is looking for members once again. Since it formed with six teams in 1962, the WAC expanded to the point of two eight-team divisions in the mid-1990s before eight schools departed and formed the Mountain West in 1999.
The WAC has managed to persevere through all the turnover, but Wednesday's departures were a definite setback, especially if the league and BYU can't rework their agreement for the Cougars to come back, albeit without football.
Benson said the arrangement was for BYU to still play four to six WAC teams per season in football and schedule the remaining openings on its own, taking advantage of the exposure on the school's BYU-TV network.
If the Cougars are still up for it, Benson said the door is open. But he didn't seem optimistic about that possibility and the Cougars were keeping quiet for a second straight day as they considered options.
West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said in an e-mail he had contacted BYU to see if the school would be interested in joining his conference but had not heard back Wednesday night. The WCC does not compete in football, which would allow BYU to remain independent and would give them another potential option if they don't want to join a depleted WAC.
The remaining WAC members are Hawaii, Utah State, New Mexico State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State and Idaho. Benson said the league will look at other schools, including members of the Football Championship Subdivision that may be interested in moving up a division and joining.
"I would expect that we're going to continue to see other movements and additional restructuring across the board," he said. "Obviously as the WAC rebuilds we will need to look at other conferences. Unfortunately over the course of the last 15 years the WAC has done that on a fairly regular basis. When we've done it, we've done it in an aboveboard fashion."
Utah State, which joined the league with New Mexico State and Idaho in 2005, was also approached by the MWC, but the Aggies felt the agreement already in place within the WAC was binding, athletic director Scott Barnes said in an open letter released Thursday afternoon.
"We were simply committed to uphold our agreement with fellow WAC members," Barnes wrote.
While Benson was still seething about Fresno State and Nevada, his remarks softened a little when asked about the moves from the Mountain West's standpoint and MWC commissioner Craig Thompson's quick push to get the Bulldogs and Wolf Pack on board if BYU did in fact leave.
"He has a job to do and I have a job to do. Our jobs are to put our respective organizations in the best possible position for success for our member institutions. I don't look at it as necessarily predatory," he said. "I think we're all chasing the BCS. We're chasing recognition and notoriety and we're chasing the financial benefits that come with the BCS."
Thompson said Wednesday night that adding Fresno State and Nevada was not designed to thwart BYU's departure by weakening the WAC.
Benson had a very different take.
"My opinion, it was very clear to me and to the WAC membership that the Fresno and Nevada invitation was direct result of BYU's interest of going independent and joining the WAC," he said.
Benson said the WAC will also have to re-negotiate its TV deal with ESPN.
Nevada athletic director Cary Groth said Wednesday night that the move made sense for the Wolf Pack in enough ways to jump despite the potential buyout and negative feelings from the rest of the league. The Reno school expects to be able to cut travel expenses now that Hawaii and Louisiana Tech will no longer be on upcoming schedules.
"The exposure of the Mountain West also has been a little stronger than the WAC," Groth told The Associated Press. "I'd say those two factors particularly played a role."
Associated Press writers Josh Dubow in San Francisco and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.
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