July 23, 2009

State of the Mountain West

The Mountain West Conference football media days wrapped up with commissioner Craig Thompson addressing the media. Thompson gave his "state of the conference" address and concluded with an extensive question and answer period with the attending media. Thompson addressed many key points that have been brought up within the MWC footprint as well as nationally in the last eight months.

Over the last decade, the Mountain West has grown from a conference that didn't even have a name for several months to one of the more recognizable names in college sports, though, as Thompson said, "there might be an adjective in front of the Mountain West in some circles." The key to that rise in notoriety has been the play of the student-athletes. "[It is] a topic that might have been missed by folks in the past, the student-athlete," Thompson said. "There are very few leagues if any that have had a first pick in the NFL draft, a first pick in the NBA draft, and now a first pick in the Major League draft with Stephen Strasberg. Number-one picks in three professional sports in a very short period of time. Of course, Alex Smith and Andrew Bogut were in the same year. I think that shows the abilities and certainly the character of the student-athletes that come out of this conference. We can play and perform at a very high level. And I think that's a major problem with the Bowl Championship Series, the BCS. … I think the crux of our whole argument this spring was that it should be more performance based."

The BCS was a major topic of the two day conference. No one is apologizing for the performance of the conference in the last ten years, which includes victories over teams such as Alabama, USC, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Arizona State, Wisconsin, and more. "We're saying that we are performing at a level that equates to automatic qualification," Thompson said. "Certainly we need to continue to perform, we need to win games. You're not going to bluff your way, you're not going to talk your way into the BCS, you're going to earn your way into the BCS. I think one of the best comments yesterday came from the Rose Bowl. 'Utah's predicted to be third in your league? Utah's your bell-cow that won two BCS bowl games!' That's what we're trying to accomplish. This is a deep league, it's a multi-faceted league."

The BCS moved to a new television network after the 2008 season, signing a contract with ESPN. 10 of the 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences initially signed that contract, only the Mountain West did not, at least not until the deadline. The MWC did sign the contract but only because the presidents felt it was in the best interests of their student-athletes. "We felt we couldn't take that opportunity away from our players," Thompson said. "To say, 'you can not participate anymore, [Utah linebacker] Stevenson Sylvester in a BCS game in your senior year - though you played in a BCS game as a junior and did very well.' We can not deny our student athletes that opportunity. As much as we would like to see change in the system, that is the current system. We couldn't take our kids voluntarily out of the chance to participate in postseason play. It would have hurt our recruitment. It was just a place we couldn't go from this juncture. We're going to continue to push for change, but from within. Our student-athletes will not be made pawns."

Thompson also discussed how the teams are chosen, the politics that are involved in the BCS. With two human polls and a complicated series of computer polls each making up a third of the overall BCS standings, Thompson made sure to point out that at least two thirds of that formula is based on opinion and perception. One big issue in the future of the conference and potential change is how the conference will continue to raise the perception of the conference while also increasing their national profile. "I think a lot has been done recently fighting for our guys," Thompson said. "Certainly the name 'Mountain West' is out there. Our coaches can now … recruit a kid in Georgia, recruit a kid in Texas and say if you have a satellite dish you can watch every game. There's a lot leagues, most leagues can't say that. Wins are extremely important. It will be interesting to see the three new coaches and how they compare this conference to the MAC, the Big 10 and the Big 12. Ask them in the conference calls in early November, 'what do you think of this league, how does it compare to where you came from?' I think they're going to say 'it's a very good league, it's everything I thought it would be and then some.' That being said, nothing equates, nothing trumps winning football games."

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