LAS VEGAS The Mountain West has always been a league comfortable going its own way.
From its unusual formation in 1998 to its untraditional football success to its creation of the first conference-only sports television network, the league has shown a fearlessness when it comes to bucking the status quo.
Now, with its top-tier membership raided again, the conference is trying to zig while everyone else zags. While leagues across the country search for ways to expand their footprint in order to enhance their TV revenue even at the expense of long-held rivalries, the Mountain West driven by necessity is going the other way one more time.
It is embracing its place as a small Western league with a small geographic footprint (save Hawaii) that preserves rivalries without the benefit of a large television contract.
The league is reconstituting much of the old WAC. Of the 10 members that will make up the league in 2013, eight played in the WAC in 1998, the final year before it split.
Its very similar to a former existence, Commissioner Craig Thompson said Wednesday after his annual state of the conference address.
More creatively, he said, its like the Thanksgiving dinner where Uncle Bob moved to Arizona a few years ago and now hes back, so hes going to be at the table again.
Such familiarity might breed contempt and thats precisely what Thompson wants.
Air Force has played Colorado State and Wyoming 50 times each. Colorado State and Wyoming have played 103 times dating back to 1899. Fresno State and 2013 Mountain West member San Jose State have met 76 times on the football field.
We dont like them. They dont like us. That makes a rivalry, Thompson said.
Too many of them have been lost in the latest round of conference realignment. Pittsburgh and West Virginia wont play annually anymore. Nor will Texas and Texas A&M. Or Kansas and Missouri. Or, closer to the Mountain Wests hearts, Utah and BYU. It certainly doesnt feel like progress.
What are we doing, doesnt there have to be some common sense? New Mexico coach Bob Davie said. I understand TV. I understand the money that comes with contracts, but for Boise State and San Diego State to be playing Connecticut and Temple, thats a shame.
Boise State and San Diego State are moving from the Mountain West to the Providence, R.I.-based Big East next summer. The Broncos made the move for additional television revenue and national exposure and rebuffed intense efforts from the Mountain West to stay.
When the Broncos depart, they will be the fourth top-tier football program to vanish from the Mountain West roster in three years, joining BYU, Utah and TCU. There is no ready replacement in the league.
The defections have left little choice but to embrace its current position as a geographically sensible league of competitive rivals.
The conference did consider a monster alignment with Conference USA, but the lack of television dollars for the 24-team, five-time zone arrangement led the leagues to shelve those discussions.
The television dollars wont be there for the Mountain West alone, either. Its current deal pays the Mountain West $8 million per season after losing roughly $4 million per year with the shuttering of The Mtn. the first network dedicated to a single athletic conference. That paltry number wasnt enough to satisfy Boise State, which is hoping to get $8 million per season when the Big East signs its television contract this fall.
Will it be enough to keep the leagues remaining members happy and competitive? Truth is the remaining members dont have many options. Or any.
I dont feel any threat. I dont have any concern. There is a strong commitment from these 10 institutions, Thompson said, referencing the 2013 membership.
So rather than expand recklessly or chase big markets and potential television dollars, the Mountain West is forging ahead by going back in time. Back to the WAC. Back to a time when conferences were a grouping of like-minded universities with geographic interests. It may not be sexy. Or particularly inventive.
But it just might work.
Brian Murphy: 377-6444