This story begins in the fall of 1998, as the Air Force Academy wrapped up a historic 12-1 football season. The climax came on the first weekend of December, as the Falcons faced Brigham Young in the Western Athletic Conference's championship game at Las Vegas.
But that game, as memorable as it was with Air Force pulling out a 20-13 victory, turned into a sad occasion. During the buildup to that finale, Air Force and seven other WAC members announced they were leaving to form the Mountain West Conference.
That change had become inevitable after the WAC grew to 16 members, with two divisions for football but without guarantees of playing the same familiar opponents each year.
Thirteen years later, the Mountain West finds itself in danger of falling apart. Brigham Young and Utah already have left. TCU, added as the MWC's ninth member in 2005, is heading for the Big 12 after initially planning to join the Big East.
Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii are moving into the Mountain West next year. But Boise State, just ending its debut season in the MWC, appears ready to jump to the Big East. And the Mountain West is talking about a merger with Conference USA, as those two conferences try to avoid extinction.
Boise State wants a western partner to make the Big East leap together, and its first choice is Air Force. However, the AFA leadership has balked, delaying its decision as fresh rumors have arisen of Brigham Young perhaps jumping into that Big East spot with Boise. The other uncertainty is Navy, which has been part of the Big East expansion rumors for weeks, but hasn't made a firm public commitment.
Obviously, the Big East wants to know soon. But this uncertainty has become a nasty invasion of the ongoing season, and Air Force has a pivotal home game at noon Saturday against Wyoming. Talk of Air Force perhaps snubbing the Mountain West has to be angering Wyoming, which already is fully capable of beating the Falcons.
So you can't blame AFA superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould for being cautious. In fact, Gould still could say no to the Big East. And that would be Air Force's best choice.
Granted, the Mountain West will not be part of the college football elite Bowl Championship Series family. (Boise State's addition had given the MWC a chance at reaching that status.) But all along, Air Force has been one of the Mountain West's crown jewels, especially now with BYU and Utah gone. In the Big East, it's safe to say Air Force would be no more than just another member, thrown in with such faraway programs as Cincinnati, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Connecticut, none of which would draw big crowds at Falcon Stadium or bring fans across the country. It's also true that playing those schools instead of Colorado State, Wyoming and New Mexico would make life much tougher for the AFA program.
So what's wrong with staying in the middle-class Mountain West, helping it through that Conference USA merger, and still perhaps having a shot at a league title game that eventually could qualify the winner for a BCS berth? Even if that didn't come to pass, it still would give Air Force a much better chance to maintain its regional rivalries and its national posture.
One last point: After CBS turned the Air Force-Navy and Air Force-Army games into national telecasts for the first time this season, with both games delivering plenty of drama, it's time for the three academies to work a permanent deal with CBS for their round-robin, capped as always by Army-Navy. It'd be good for CBS, and could produce a lot more money for the academies.
In the meantime, staying in the Mountain West would help save the league that Air Force helped start. There's nothing wrong with keeping the MWC alive.
If you ask me, major-college football still is headed for a playoff tournament someday, perhaps sooner than we realize. And until that happens, being a middle-class hero would be much better than being an upper-class doormat.
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