The Western Athletic Conference has been one of the biggest victims of conference realignment in recent years. Once home to schools such as Arizona, BYU, and TCU, how was the WAC reduced to its current state, and what changes might the future hold?
Founded in 1962 with six charter members, the WAC gradually expanded throughout most of its existence. By 1980, the additions of Air Force, San Diego State, and Hawaii among others had increased the number of teams to nine. Both Arizona and Arizona State had left by the mid 70s, but the WAC more than made up for the loss.
By 1996, further expansion increased the total members of the conference to sixteen. In response, the WAC created a “quadrant” system, in which groups of four schools would regularly play each other. This did not sit well with several members. In 1999, eight WAC schools left to form the Mountain West Conference, dealing the first major blow to the WAC.
Most of the 2000s saw the WAC both lose and gain many members, overall weathering the decade as best as they could. The 2010s however, saw realignment that would fundamentally change the entire conference
Decade of trouble
Early changes saw the WAC sitting in a decent position, at 10 full members and 7 that sponsored football. However, 2012 would bring changes that would strike the death blow to the WAC as a football conference.
First came the news that San Jose State and Utah State would be leaving to join the Mountain West. Then four other schools jumped ship to the C-USA and Sun Belt. By the end of the year, the WAC was left with only two football playing members, resulting in the conference dropping football entirely.
By dropping football, the WAC substantially reduced their expansion candidates. After the great drop in numbers, the conference was forced to almost completely revamp their membership over the next few years.
Today, the conference is home to nine teams. Two of those, UMKC and CSU Bakersfield, are set to leave the conference in 2020, although Dixie State is also set to join that same year. That brings the 2020 total number of teams down to eight. With Chicago State being a geographic outlier and in danger of major budget cuts, that leaves the WAC in a precarious situation.
Recently, the WAC has tried to get Division II members to move up, with some success. Cal Baptist and Dixie State are the two most promising examples. But several schools have openly turned the WAC down, while others have not openly accepted or denied.
Currently, the WAC seems focused on aggressive expansion before the next round of realignment. For the most part, that consists of calling up Division II schools, and snagging whoever they can.
The future is anything but certain for the WAC. The next round of realignment could increase both their numbers and prestige, or it could result in the conference disintegrating completely. For now, all we can do is wait and see.