In the chaotic, money-driven world of major-college athletics, the Mountain West Conference always had seemed to be stuck in the middle class — one elusive opportunity away from achieving its goal of sustained, elite-level national credibility.
As other leagues merged into 12-team monsters, the Mountain West stayed smaller. Then a few years ago, when Texas and Oklahoma appeared on the verge of leading an exodus from the Big 12 to what was then the Pacific 10, the Mountain West looked close to hitting the jackpot by perhaps merging with such well-known Big 12 members as Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor.
That didn't happen, obviously. Texas and Oklahoma chose to hold the Big 12 together, even after Nebraska (Big Ten) and Colorado (Pac-12) bolted. Utah and Brigham Young left the Mountain West, and more scrambling ensued. Boise State came aboard, but Texas Christian jumped to the Big East — then reneged and joined the Big 12.
Amid that confusion, the Mountain West's Denver-based TV network shut down, ending what had been the league's best vehicle for consistent exposure. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada came to the Mountain West, but then Boise State and San Diego State jumped in bed with the Big East. So the MWC added San Jose State and Utah State, which kept the conference afloat.
But now, with the Big East about as stable as Congress, Boise State and San Diego State have become prodigal children, returning to the Mountain West.
If that all sounds confusing, it should. But the end result is better than the Mountain West could have dreamed: 12 members starting this fall, enough for a football championship game and an even stronger basketball tournament, and with much better appeal for national networks.
Not only that, but the conference (which has had its offices in Colorado Springs since forming in 1999) has moved into new headquarters off InterQuest Parkway and Interstate 25 — quite appropriately, on New Allegiance Drive.
And for those who were concerned about how the football divisions might be determined, we already know that answer as well. And it's yet another positive.
The first rumors turned out to be dead-on, with the divisional split by time zones. In the Mountain, Air Force joins Colorado State, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah State and Boise State. The Pacific (to be called the West) will have San Diego State, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas, San Jose State, Fresno State and Hawaii.
Some might argue differently, but from this view, the Mountain will be tougher in football — which might be an ominous sign for Air Force. Boise State is a proven powerhouse; Utah State just had a 10-win season and a bowl victory with a young team; New Mexico and Colorado State are on the rise with solid head coaches; Wyoming is coming off a disappointing year but with lots of key talent returning. Meanwhile Air Force, despite having made it to bowls six consecutive years, enters retooling mode.
Regardless, the league certainly has separated itself now from others in the so-called second tier of big-time college football, ahead of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, Sun Belt and the fast-eroding Big East.
As for men's basketball, the Mountain West didn't have to grow. It already ranks among the top handful of Division I leagues, perhaps meaning five NCAA Tournament berths this year with no drop-off in sight.
Clearly, the CBS Sports Network wants to capitalize, and it can provide plenty of national exposure in football and basketball, not to mention the MWC title football game. Who knows, we might see a rebirth of the cable-TV network that did such an admirable job of marketing the entire league. With the San Diego market salvaged, along with Utah State bringing that state back into play and San Jose State opening the door to the Bay Area, who knows?
Then someday, expanded national football playoffs should provide that next not-so-elusive opportunity.
So if you're a follower of the Mountain West as a whole, you've probably never felt better. But if your loyalty stops at Air Force, don't feel too giddy.
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