Analysis:

Mountain West leader says conference is content, but the future is far from settled

The Sun’s UNLV football reporter takes a look at the state of the league following the commissioner’s meeting Wednesday

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Sam Morris

UNLV head football coach Bobby Hauck takes part in the Mountain West Conference football media day Tuesday, July 24, 2012.

MWC Football Media Day 2012

UNLV head football coach Bobby Hauck takes part in the Mountain West Conference football media day Tuesday, July 24, 2012. Launch slideshow »

The Mountain West Conference is happy, content and thriving … until it’s not.

That was the underlying message from Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson’s state of the league address Wednesday morning at the Cosmopolitan.

As the league prepares for a football season in which it welcomes three new members — UNR, Hawaii and Fresno State — and sees another pair about to walk out the door — Boise State and San Diego State — upheaval seems to be the status quo. Not so, said Thompson.

With San Jose State and Utah State set to become official members on July 1, 2013, the league’s board “has determined that we’re going to stay at 10 football-playing institutions,” Thompson said.

What that actually means is the league won’t seek any changes as long as everybody else also stays put. And the odds of that would be too short to even bother betting at a local sports book.

Not long ago, the plan was to create a sort-of super league with Conference USA that could possibly balloon up to 24 teams. Thompson said that’s dead, at least for now.

Back in May when the Mountain West made its additions and C-USA added five schools for next season, Thompson called it Phase One of a larger plan. On Wednesday he said that more importantly it was a decision by both conferences to take care of their own before moving forward with any type of merger.

And the Mountain West taking care of itself didn’t include adding games that it would take it across the entire country. Along with trying to figure out the TV deals, Thompson said the league’s presidents started to shy away from the idea of moving themselves from a western-based league to a national one.

But that wasn’t UNLV President Neal Smatresk’s opinion on the matter when the super league went public in February.

“Do I like five time zones? You bet I do,” Smatresk said at the time.

Taking the UNLV brand across the country may be the best long-term plan for the university, or maybe it’s not. That’s an unknown the league as a whole wasn’t prepared to continue exploring at this time.

Instead the league will try to strengthen itself while keeping an eye towards the future. Thompson said the league is happy at 10 football teams, but later he added, “I don’t know that we’re done.”

If the Aztecs or Broncos said they wanted to jump back in, Thompson said he would listen. The league told Idaho and New Mexico State thanks but no thanks, yet adding a Texas school (UTEP?) is still a possibility.

“Texas remains an interesting market to us,” Thompson said.

So the teams are the same until they’re not, but what about TV?

Thompson said he hoped to have the league’s remaining TV schedule for this season done by Wednesday, but it’s not quite ready. He did say the league would put at least 30 additional games on either regional or local stations. UNLV currently has five games tied to a national network.

In the long term, the league’s TV revenue may not come from traditional TVs at all. The reality of a mountain-based league is that it doesn’t have the national cache to warrant the large TV contracts that have been the main culprits in all of the recent realignment.

“We’re not going to garner a $200 million annual TV contract. What we’re going to do is become very creative,” Thompson said. “… We’re looking more into digital programming.”

The league’s athletic directors are scheduled to meet next week to discuss just that. Moving out into the digital world is even more important after this summer’s closure of The Mtn., the network that was either terrific or terrible depending on whom you asked. Either way, it’s gone, and a lot of Mountain West sports that used to get televised don’t currently have a home.

Essentially, the Mountain West has an uncertain future — in both members and visibility — but Thompson is confident that 2012 is a step toward strengthening the league in the long term.

The additions have natural rivals — UNLV already played series’ against UNR and Hawaii, for example — and that’s true with next year’s newcomers, too. It would have been nice to be granted automatic qualifying status in the last two years of the BCS as we know it, but that didn’t happen and the league is moving forward.

Thompson told a story about his sixth grade English teacher, who used to hit him on the back of the head with a ruler and say, “Thompson, your future lies ahead of you, not behind you.”

Nobody was standing behind Thompson on Wednesday, but that message was still behind every word. Whatever the league thought it could be or wanted to be at one point doesn’t matter now. The only thing that matters is what’s ahead, and what that looks like will likely be different this time next year than it is now.

No matter what you hear, this is unstable ground. That’s the way of the college football world.

So for now, the Mountain West is happy. Boise State won’t be the national power they have been for the past few seasons, but the Broncos should still be good before jumping to the Big East. Newcomer UNR is also right at the top.

Add in new coaches like Norm Chow (Hawaii), Bob Davie (New Mexico) and Jim McElwain (Colorado State) and there’s some intrigue around the league. Those programs have a lot of optimism that they’ve found the answer.

That mirrors the Mountain West. In both cases, though, history suggests the future unknown will alter even the best-laid plans.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Win the championship Nevada

  2. Warriors all the way!