Daily Fodder: The Mountain West is where Pack needs to be | NevadaAppeal.com

Daily Fodder: The Mountain West is where Pack needs to be

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The answer to all of the Nevada Wolf Pack athletic department’s problems might just be waiting around the corner.

The big, bad, mighty Pacific 10 Conference, if you can believe new commissioner Larry Scott, is actually going to seriously consider expansion for the first time in more than three decades. If that happens, if the Pac-10 turns into the Pac-11 or Pac-12 right before our eyes, it would set off an avalanche of athletic department dominoes in the western half of the United States that just might alter Wolf Pack sports as we now see them.

The three schools that seem to be at the top of the Pac-10 shopping list are Colorado, BYU and Utah. Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State have also been rumored to be sniffing around the Pac-10 lately.

The Pack? Stop laughing. We all know that Nevada could compete with most Pac-10 schools in every sport. But winning a league title would be tough in most sports. OK, it would be darn near impossible. But there’s no reason why the Pack couldn’t finish .500 or above in every Pac-10 sport.

But it’s just not going to happen. Maybe someday, sometime in the future in a galaxy far, far away. But not now. Not on this planet. The Pac-10 is not going to change its spelling to Pack-10.

There are a lot of reasons for that but let’s just say that those reasons would start and probably end with the Pack’s athletic budget and small television market.

But that’s not the issue here. It’s not about the Pack going to the Pac-10. It’s about the Wolf Pack jumping into a vacancy left by a school that jumps into the Pac-10.

Yes, I know that scenario has a vulture circling a carcass type of feel to it. You can just picture Pack athletic director Cary Groth, sitting in her office like an ambulance-chasing lawyer, hoping to hear a siren outside her window, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice.

But, hey, that’s where college sports is right now. Has been, actually, for the better part of the last 20 years. You have to be ready to jump when the jumping is good. He (or she) who hesitates, don’t forget, is left playing Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State in a makeshift conference in front of an apathetic and bored fan base.

Make no mistake, the best thing Chris Ault did as athletic director was to be smart enough to be at the forefront of all of this rapid change 20 years ago. He pushed the Wolf Pack into the Big West Conference in 1992 when everyone was perfectly happy to be in the Big Sky Conference and Division I-AA football. He didn’t hesitate to jump into the Western Athletic Conference in 2000.

Yes, we might long for the days of the Division I-AA football playoffs. But have you seen what I-AA football looks like lately? It’s not pretty. It’s certainly not your father’s I-AA. It’s sort of like Northern 2A football but without all of the fan and media attention.

Moving to the Big West and WAC was necessary for the Pack’s athletic survival. And Ault deserves a lot of the credit for understanding that before anyone else.

The WAC, for the most part, has been good for the Pack. No question. The checks from Boise State’s two BCS bowl games alone makes it worth it. But that doesn’t mean that the Pack should close its eyes to better opportunities.

The Mountain West Conference would be such an opportunity. If BYU and/or Utah expand the Pac-10 then the Pack needs to knock on the MWC’s door. Sarah Palin wouldn’t even have to look at notes scribbled on her palm to understand that the MWC would be a great move for the Pack.

Let’s face it. The WAC hasn’t exactly thrilled the northern Nevada sports community. Attendance at every Wolf Pack sporting event — especially the three that actually have fans (football, men’s basketball and baseball) — has been flat, at best, in recent years.

There just aren’t enough rivalries in the WAC to excite the Pack community. Yes, Boise State in football will always get the blood of Pack fans boiling. And Fresno is always a nice draw, mainly because the Bulldogs bring half their fan base everywhere they go.

But that’s about it.

Louisiana Tech? There’s just no connection between Nevada and Louisiana. Nevada wasn’t even part of the Louisiana Purchase two centuries ago. Louisiana Tech and Nevada (let alone Hawaii) in the same conference makes about as much sense as Katy Perry dating Russell Brand.

San Jose State? Great city with a great athletic tradition. The Spartans, at first glance, should be a nice rivalry with the Pack. But it’s just not 1965 anymore. The Bay area doesn’t even get excited about San Jose sports anymore.

Hawaii? Unless you are a retiree who loves to play golf and sip Mai Tais, the Rainbow Warriors aren’t going to get you excited. It’s impossible to have a heated rivalry with Hawaii. The people are so nice, the teams are so nice, the city is so nice. Going to Hawaii and booing their teams is like going to Disneyland and heckling Mickey Mouse. It’s just not going to happen.

Utah State? They suffer from San Jose State syndrome. They aren’t even the first or second (or third or fourth) topic of watercooler conversation in their own area, ranking a few notches below BYU, Utah, the Jazz, the latest Donnie and Marie news and the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Winter Olympics.

New Mexico State? Two words. Las. Cruces. Enough. Said.

Idaho? Boise State doesn’t even get excited to play Idaho anymore.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the WAC. Good people. Good schools. It’s just not a great fit for the Pack when it comes to selling tickets.

The WAC for the Pack, don’t forget, was all about football. Big West football, Ault knew, was quickly evaporating 10 years ago. Ault knew it and had to do something. The WAC needed schools. It was a marriage of convenience.

But now, like all marriages of convenience, the fire that was never there is barely a flicker in the fireplace.

The Mountain West would get that fire raging once again.

The best thing about the MWC is that UNLV is there. UNLV and Nevada should be in the same conference. No question. This is not even a topic for debate.

The Fremont Cannon game is nice. But it really doesn’t mean anything except you get to keep a trophy that nobody but the Pack football coaches get to see.

The Pack basketball and baseball teams play UNLV every year and hardly anyone notices. Imagine two games a year in basketball against the Rebels with a conference crown on the line. Imagine the Rebels coming to Peccole Park on a beautiful, warm May weekend with a title at stake.

There wouldn’t be any problems selling tickets those days and nights.

Yes, we know that the MWC without a Utah or BYU would be a little watered down. But the leftovers would still be better for selling Pack tickets than the current WAC setup.

Air Force and Wyoming would always be interesting matchups. Switching New Mexico State for New Mexico is the difference between Albuquerque and Las Cruces. Enough said.

Colorado State already has a rivalry with the Pack. San Diego State would be like going to Hawaii only cheaper and without that annoying plane ride. TCU is solid in every sport.

Also, if BYU and Utah both go to the Pac-10, Boise would probably be the MWC’s No. 1 chioce to help fill the holes.

It would kill the Pack (and especially Ault) if Boise State football went to the MWC and left the Pack behind. Imagine the WAC without Boise State football. OK, you can come out from under the covers. It hasn’t happened yet.

But it could happen. And it will likely happen if Boise goes unbeaten in football again and doesn’t get an invitation to the BCS title game. Again.

That’s why the Wolf Pack, just like they were in 1992 and 2000, needs to be aggressive when finding its best possible home. If you snooze when conference expansion is heating up, your fans also end up snoozing.

We’ve all seen it lately at Mackay, Lawlor and Peccole.

It’s crucial that the Pack doesn’t allow that Mountain West door to slam shut in its face again.

• Read Joe Santoro’s blog at nevadappeal.com/dailyfodder