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Blanchette: WAC’s sad odyssey hits rocks

Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)
Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)

It is sad comedy, this dry rot eating at the Western Athletic Conference, the University of Idaho’s happy athletic home. Here’s one of the amusing parts:

So many change orders of addition, subtraction and dissection have attended the perpetual remodeling of the WAC that Idaho athletic director Rob Spear some time ago began deflecting requests for his thoughts, at least until the crew takes a smoke break. Then he unfolds an old script about “moving forward,” and awaits the next round of defections. And so it was this week, when more hell broke loose.

“Until all this is finalized,” Spear was quoted as saying, “I am not going to comment.”

Really? What makes him think “all this” will ever be finalized?

Maybe it’s his permanent vow of silence on realignment? Or admission that Idaho has no option but to move back to its old neighborhood?

The FBS gig would indeed seem to be up for the Vandals, but never underestimate a university’s capacity for perpetuating a charade.

For the unraveling of the WAC truly has reached comical mass.

It is not enough that Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada giddyap this summer. Nor that Utah State and San Jose State are on the verge of jumping to the Mountain West, and Louisiana Tech may be bound for Conference USA. As much as he got used as a piñata, even commissioner Karl Benson skedaddling for the dry land of a job with the Sun Belt was a body blow, given that he took his duct tape with him.

Now this: Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Texas-Arlington – all plundered by Benson from the Southland Conference before his sprint – are ready to pledge their troth to other leagues before playing so much as a single WAC game.

How much more toxic could the WAC get?

If all those deals go down, the league will have two football-playing members – Idaho and New Mexico State – and basketball affiliates Seattle, Denver and Boise State in 2013-14.

That’s not a conference. More like a splinter from the Titanic’s shuffleboard court.

This is sorry news for the Vandals, especially Spear, who has worked the phones and conference rooms – to help shore up the WAC and foster stability, yes, but also to try to position Idaho for an alternative landing place.

And now he’ll have to come home from the WAC meetings this week – what a jolly confab that must be – and answer the question of whether Idaho has any choice but to seek readmission to the Big Sky Conference, which it left to embark on this largely misbegotten odyssey 17 years ago.

It needs to be asked. And answered with more than a dismissive wave.

The guess here is that the WAC’s basketball survivors will try to muddle on by annexing pieces from here and there – like, say the Great West Conference, which has no automatic NCAA bid. Possibly that could buy some time for Idaho to hang on as an independent in football until another realignment shakeup might make them a fallback for the MWC or Sun Belt, neither of which seems to have a use for it now.

What a rich, full existence.

But, really, as badly as the Vandals – forever casting their eyes across the stateline and downstate – might want to be of that ilk, how loudly does the FBS clique have to tell you that it doesn’t want or need you?

When does it become apparent that geography, demographics and resources cannot be overcome, and what you have to offer is simply not enough to persuade someone to choose you for their pick-up game?

The arguments against a Big Sky return have been made before – that FCS football is a bigger financial loser than bottom-feeding in the FBS, that patrons solicited for big-time pretensions will bail if there’s a retreat. Also, don’t forget what Benson said a year ago after Fresno, Hawaii and Nevada followed Boise State out the door:

“This is a great opportunity for Idaho to win a football championship, a basketball championship and elevate itself,” he said, suggesting that a less competitive league was actually a plus.

Really? Then why not return to the Big Sky – where the Vandals won championships?

Oh, the odd logic that threads through the realignment blues.

On Tuesday, Idaho issued a statement with no attribution to any specific administrator, expressing that the school is “disappointed in the recent changes” – virtually confirming the reported moves – and complaining they’re “driven not by tradition, academic quality, competitiveness, or the student experience, but by money.”

Uh, OK. Idaho’s tradition was actually forged in the Big Sky, but never mind that for now. The kicker came two paragraphs later in what has to be a reference to UI’s appeal as a free agent:

“We believe our strong presence in the Northwest media markets is being overlooked during this crucial evaluation period.”

So, to review: This realignment stuff is horribly greed-driven – and Idaho should be invited to be a part of it, dammit.

Now that’s funny. Sad, but funny.