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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 20, 2003

UH didn't pledge its allegiance

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Like the kid at the supermarket who plays around the precariously balanced pyramid of canned goods only to see it eventually come tumbling down, the University of Hawai'i should be the last one surprised about the upheaval in the Western Athletic Conference.

While defections were bound to happen eventually, it isn't hard to see the decision by Rice, Southern Methodist and Tulsa to leave the WAC for Conference USA as having been given a nudge by UH.

President Evan Dobelle's outspoken declaration of interest in the Mountain West Conference in the spring and the school's subsequent refusals to back commissioner Karl Benson's plan for WAC solidarity have figured in this.

At the very least, UH made it easier for the three to defect. More likely, it helped galvanize the decision.

Rice, SMU and Tulsa, hanging out on the WAC's eastern flank, have been insecure since Brigham Young and the gang of eight bolted the 16-team WAC in 1999. Their vulnerability was underlined in 2001 when Texas Christian also departed, leaving them a dwindling Central time zone minority in a conference dominated by other regions.

Persistent rumors of Fresno State and Hawai'i awaiting a call from the MWC helped feed the fears, along with Dobelle's declaration of interest in the MWC.

So much so that the three schools held talks with a couple different groups about realignment possibilities.

When this summer's Atlantic Coast Conference raid on the Big East opened up the likelihood of a shakeup in CUSA, the WAC suddenly had a problem.

Still, the impending WAC breakup might have been averted and the conference even been able to strengthen itself through realignment if everybody had bought into the so-called Benson Plan. It addressed the concerns of the eastern flank by attempting to bring Tulane, TCU and Houston of CUSA into a 12-team, two-division WAC. TCU was a long shot, but the others were listening.

To assure the conference the unity it needed to pull the plan off, Benson visited members asking them to pledge one-for-all solidarity. According to two people who took part, the vote was 7-3 with just UH, SMU and Nevada against. The other two might have eventually come around had UH been willing to reconsider, but it never did.

Now, UH is between the WAC and a hard place. If it gets invited to the MWC — no sure thing — it has lost any leverage and will probably have to pay handsomely for the opportunity.

Or, UH faces the prospect of staying in a watered-down WAC, where the options are staying at seven teams or gathering up whatever remnants are left to fill out the lineup.

The people who run UH should, least of all, be surprised it is coming to this.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.