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Blanchette: One last season to jump through WAC hoops

Spokesman-Review corresponding sports columnist John Blanchette.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokesman-Review corresponding sports columnist John Blanchette. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

LAS VEGAS – The elevator doors at the Orleans Hotel are papered over with the logo for the Western Athletic Conference basketball tournament playing in the arena next door, which otherwise seems to be a secret. The other day a woman pushed the button and waited for a car to arrive, puzzled.

“I don’t know what the WAC is,” she confessed to her husband.

Join the club, ma’am.

Not only what, but who. And where. And when, how and especially why.

And speaking of eternal questions, here’s another: Will Don Verlin ever win a game in this tournament?

The Idaho coach gets one more chance in 2014, and that’s it. Vandal sports other than football move back to the Big Sky Conference that summer, and Verlin likely will volunteer to handle the packing for everyone. The Vandals’ 65-49 thud in the first round against New Mexico State on Thursday makes Verlin 0-5 in this tournament, a bit of underachievement (as was this season) that doesn’t square with the respectability he’s restored to the program.

“This team never got its confidence,” Verlin said. “We played one of the toughest schedules in the WAC and we got beat down a little bit. Then we lost some games that could have changed our season.”

The season’s telling stat? Turnovers. Not that the Vandals committed so many, but that they forced the fewest in all of Division I basketball. Somebody has to, but still – the easy basket wasn’t part of the Idaho arsenal.

Other than Kyle Barone’s player-of-the-year season, this is one the Vandals will want to flush, and can – along with just about all of the scouting reports, game tapes and travel itineraries. They won’t be of any use next year.

Were our lady of the elevators from our neck of the woods, we could explain the WAC in thoroughly Spokane terms: the Spalding Auto Parts of college athletics.

Wrecks and reclamations. Yesterday’s junker gives new life to tomorrow’s smooth ride – or sits a-rusting.

The telling stat here? Five schools are playing in their first WAC tournament. And for four of those, it’s also their last WAC tournament.

Only Idaho, NMSU and Seattle will be there when basketball reconvenes again, joined by the ZipCode All-Stars: Cal State Bakersfield, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Missouri-Kansas City, Texas-Pan American and Utah Valley.

“Nine schools,” sighed Idaho athletic director Rob Spear, “in nine different states.”

And, as noted, the next year Verlin and Co. will do it again with 11 new dance partners in the Sky.

The obvious question is, “Why wait?” The obvious answer, in the context of college sports, is “Money.”

The Vandals’ share of the exit fees from all the schools that have bailed from the WAC in the past few years figures to top $2 million. Like body bag games in football, it’s a lousy way to do business for athletes who deserve better, but business has to be done.

Spear still looks at the death of the WAC as a football entity wistfully, remembering Idaho’s 2005 acceptance into the league as if the Vandals had planted their flag on Everest – a regional FBS conference, reunited with their down-state rivals. He believes had Boise State not pulled it’s now-we’re-going-no-we’re-not footsy with the Big East, the Mountain West wouldn’t have come calling for San Jose State and Utah State, and the WAC would have survived.

But he can’t much afford nostalgia. He’s trying to keep the Vandals’ water wings inflated for an FBS swim as an independent.

He’s heard the critics – present! – who want football should follow the rest of Idaho’s sports back to the Sky, but insisted Idaho must tread this water first “because the school’s worked too hard to get FBS status to just throw it away overnight.

“Do I think a great (football) league would be Montana, MSU, Idaho, Eastern Washington and those schools? Yeah. But I’d like that to be an FBS league.”

Such movement seems unlikely unless the five remaining BCS conferences decide to share enough TV revenue to entice FCS schools to add scholarships and sports to make that jump. Football independence is Spear checking whenever the bet comes around to him, waiting for that fiscal resolution, or perhaps more realignment dominos to fall.

“Long term, Idaho needs a football conference,” he said.

Well, short term, too. Maybe Idaho can carry this on longer than two years, but it won’t be pretty, from a competitive or aesthetic standpoint.

“What I like about being back in the Big Sky for basketball is that we’ll have rivalries again,” Spear said. “That’s what worries me about football.”

In the meantime, Idaho basketball will hang out in the Rent-a-WAC, not only without rivals but without purpose other than marking time and collecting a check.

An elevator stuck between floors.

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