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Like A Zombie, The WAC Could Indeed Rise from the Dead

Recently, I wrote an entire article about how the way the NCAA allows schools to become FBS is broken.

It turns out I had no idea exactly how broken until I was guided towards the Idaho Vandals Football Consultant report, helpfully posted in full on the University of Idaho's website.

In that report, one of the possible avenues that Idaho was mulling over was to join the WAC.

I was confused - the WAC had stopped sponsoring FBS football long ago, a couple of years after then-commissioner Karl Benson finished his uncanny impersonation of Baghdad Bob in regards to saving FBS football for that conference - only to leave his job to take over at the Sun Belt Conference.

But it turns out, after a fresh read of the NCAA rulebook, it is indeed true.

Like a bad horror movie, the zombified WAC football conference could indeed resurrect itself - and, in the process, shows how royally screwed up this system of FCS and FBS movement really is.

*****

Let's recap the entire broken process of FBS membership.

If you are an FCS school wanting to transition to FBS, you need to:

1. Be willing to tear yourself away from your current conference membership in football, and quite probably your conference relationships in all sports.

2. Have a conference* willing to dangle an invite to you.

Possible CCU Powerpoint pitch to Sun Belt, 1 slide.  "You're in!"
That's it.  As I've exhaustively covered with Coastal Carolina, the Chanticleers did not need to demonstrate pretty much anything to Karl Benson and the Sun Belt membership in order to secure an invite, or at least not show anything that mattered.

They didn't need to demonstrate a stadium that could hold the theoretical minimum attendance in FBS.  They didn't need to demonstrate any sort of fan survey or study that said their metro area can or would support FBS-level football as played by the Sun Belt.  They also didn't need to demonstrate any financial plan vetted by the state or any independent agency that their plan wasn't batshit crazy.

What I didn't realize was that even the term FBS conference* is "negotiable", effectively with an asterisk by it.

How does a conference have an FBS invite to hand out, do you ask?

The answer lies in the NCAA rulebook, which was helpfully highlighted in Idaho's consultant report.
NCAA Bylaw 20.4.2.1.1 Eligibility for Reclassification - Before a Football Championship Subdivision institution may apply for reclassification to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the institution must receive a bona fide invitation for membership from a Football Bowl Subdivision conference or a conference that previously met the definition of a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. 
Like some others, I (foolishly) thought that in order to have an invite to hand out to an FCS school, a conference needed to already be currently sponsoring FBS football.

The WAC at one time was a FBS football conference, soldiering on with the bare minimum of members, including Idaho and New Mexico State.  But then the Big 10 took Nebraska, setting off realignmentaggeddon, causing Benson to jump the WAC, and ending with Idaho and NMSU the only two FBS schools left in the conference.

The WAC stopped sponsoring football as a conference, and barely, though the actions of its new commissioner, Jeff Hurd, managed to keep things together as a viable Division I conference at all.

But without football, ultimately both schools with FBS programs landed, temporarily, in the Sun Belt, until its other members decided to throw them to the curb last month.  (Humiliatingly, it included four schools that weren't even in the conference when they originally resettled in there: Georgia State, Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, and Coastal Carolina, who isn't even an official member yet.)

As Idaho was casting about for answers, they looked into the WAC, because, apparently - and this was verified by a compliance officer - WAC football is not dead.  Sort of.

Yo Quiero WAC Football
The WAC, lest people forget, are still an athletic conference, just one that doesn't have football at present.  It consists of a rag-tag bunch of schools, stretching from Illinois (Chicago State) to California (Cal State-Bakersfield).

At least one, UTRGV, or University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, is currently studying whether they want to start up a football program.

Another, for-profit school Grand Canyon University, becomes a full member of Division I at the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, and are growing in leaps and bounds.  Though football hasn't gotten to the point of a commissioned study, it wouldn't be a surprise if they had plans along that road, with president Brian Mueller cannily developing relationships with prominent members of the NBA's Phoenix Suns.

Since the WAC had previously been an FBS conference, they retained the ability to offer a school an invitation to their conference to play FBS football, even though they don't currently sponsor football in their conference, couldn't put together a conference schedule, and wouldn't have conference-specific rules for football competition.
the institution must receive a bona fide invitation for membership from ... a conference that previously met the definition of a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. 
This is nuts by any measure.  And yet, it appears to be a real path forward that was seen by Idaho as a possible way to retain FBS football.

I had always thought the standards for FBS membership were ridiculous, but at least I thought that the invites had to come from a conference that currently was operating an FBS conference.  Turns out that's not even true.

Worse, this also opens up the possibility of other conferences performing the same "undead" trick to offer invites to schools.  The Missouri Valley Conference, who, from 1978-1981, sponsored FBS football, theoretically could perform the same trick.  So could the Southland Conference, current home of Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and other gulf coast schools.

Although this all does indeed seem crazy - and it's no secret that I think it is - there are potential snags to this approach.

The first are the words "bona fide" in the language of the rule, which in the legal context of this NCAA rule translates to "genuine".

If the WAC were to invite, say, Liberty to join a one-team conference that they knew they couldn't support at the FBS level, would that be a "genuine" invitation?

Personally, I don't think so, which is why the WAC hasn't sent out a bunch of one-year "invites" to every FCS school that has wanted to secretly join FBS, and then be shocked - shocked! - to find out there was not going to be football at this establishment.  Those members could then become FBS independents, and then worry about getting "bona fide" conference invites later.

The second huge challenge of this WAC approach would be one of scheduling.

This excellent, longish, accurate post by the user HawaiiMongoose on CSNBBS makes clear the issue:
If the WAC wanted to resume sponsoring football, the general rule on Division I conference football scheduling (section 20.02.5.3(b)), which applies for both FCS and FBS conferences, would require the WAC to sponsor a minimum of five regular-season conference games per year. Moreover, the FBS scheduling rule (section 20.9.9.2) would require any school that joined the WAC to move up from FCS to FBS to play at least five regular-season home games against FBS opponents, of which no more than one could be at a neutral site. Taken together, those rules effectively prevent the WAC from reinstating itself as an FBS conference by just restarting football with Idaho, NMSU and six FCS move-ups and waiting the four years for the FCS move-ups to complete their transition to FBS. Instead the process would have to be done in stages over a considerably longer period, with the WAC inviting FCS move-ups in at least two stages. 
Here's why the quick fix won't work. If the WAC only had Idaho and NMSU as current FBS members and immediately added six FCS move-ups with the goal of quickly returning to full FBS conference status, then for the FCS move-ups, their seven-game conference schedule would include only one home game against an FBS opponent. That would leave them needing three more FBS home games and another at a neutral site to meet the FBS schedule requirement, with only five out of conference games to do it. No FCS school would be able to pull that off. 
However if the WAC had Idaho and NMSU as current FBS members and added only four FCS move-ups -- the minimum to sponsor a five-game regular season -- then for the FCS move-ups, they would get their one home conference game against an FBS opponent and be left with seven out of conference games to get the other three home FBS contests and a neutral site FBS game. By scheduling smart they would be able to do that, and in four years they would attain full FBS status. At that point, with six full FBS members, the WAC could invite two more FCS move ups and expand its schedule to seven conference games. The FCS move ups would each get three or four home conference games against FBS opponents, leaving them needing only one or two home out of conference FBS games which would be doable. Four more years would go by and the WAC would be back to having eight full FBS members and would once again qualify as an FBS conference.
The post details a world where Idaho and New Mexico State got together and formed a plan to resuscitate the WAC.  The Aggies, who just yesterday said they were going to soldier on as an FBS independent, certainly seem like they would be receptive.  However, Idaho's decision to reclassify to FCS certainly puts a harpoon through that plan temporarily.

But Idaho isn't the only borderline FBS school that could benefit by a WAC zombie conference.

Some Schools Might Welcome a Zombie Overlord
UMass, which is 2,290 miles away from Las Cruces, New Mexico, is planning to soldier on as an independent as well, having been dumped from the MAC a year ago.
Though the geography is ridiculous, might UMass be interested in joining the WAC in an effort to cling to FBS membership?  I'd guess UMass' athletic director would return their phone calls, because life as an an FBS independent when you're not called Notre Dame is a tough, expensive slog.  The WAC is better than nothing.

Might the WAC be able to peel off a few more Division I schools?  There are a few possibles.

Texas State, the westernmost school in the Sun Belt, perhaps could be persuaded to join the WAC with enough other schools that are willing.  The Sun Belt offers nothing more to the Bobcats than the WAC does as long as FBS football is involved, unless Texas State fans have secret rivalries with UL-Lafayette and UL-Monroe that the wider world is missing.

But let's say that the WAC did somehow manage to pull all three of these schools together - New Mexico State, UMass, and Texas State.  To that they add two existing schools that start their FBS transition year in 2017-2018 by playing an FCS independent schedule.

Then, say, they pulled in Liberty, Sam Houston State, and, say, Montana as FCS call-ups for the 2018-2019 season.

If such a scenario played itself out, the WAC would eventually have eight members that play FBS football,with three FCS start-ups.

The FCS teams would then have at least two built-in WAC home games vs. FBS schools, and would then need to find two or three FBS home games (with one possibly being neutral-site) to fill out - possibly a doable schedule for a couple of years until they get to FBS transitional status.

Crazy?  Yes.  All legal within the NCAA rulebook?   As far as I can tell.

*****

The fact remains, though, that this loophole is ridiculous, and the entire method of transitioning teams from FCS to FBS remains ridiculous.

And the time for the NCAA to act is now.

Essentially, there is no vetting process.  The "vetting process" is to trust an existing FBS conference - or, more ridiculously, a conference that doesn't even sponsor FBS football but did as many as thirty years ago - to be proper stewards of FBS membership.  Geography, rivalries, financial viability - nobody appears to care.  As long as there are desperate, undead conferences, and schools willing to jettison decades of local rivalries for an uncertain, expensive future, the path is open.

Does this sound right to anybody?

There needs to be a way for the NCAA to have an established set of standards for FBS membership, complete with a third-party audit of the plans and finances, surveys of the surrounding area for "FBS readiness", as well as interviews with government officials, if a state school is involved, to see about the viability of a FBS transition.

There needs to be more control over the process of declaring a school "FBS ready", and more of an opportunity for schools to make the transition to FBS that are ready.  Conferences shouldn't be the stewards of subdivision membership, the NCAA should be.

And if the NCAA thinks that there aren't a legion of schools trying to figure out how to best leverage this zombie loophole to force themselves into FBS whether they're ready or not, they're the ones who are crazy.

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