Gutsy Mountain West banking on big plans
Feb. 19, 2005
By Dennis Dodd
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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Give the Mountain West credit for having a huge set.
And we're not necessarily talking television.
Last year the Mountain West became the first I-A conference to leave ESPN. Mountain West TV (carrying league football and basketball games) kicks off in 2006 on new cable network CSTV.
College Sports Television is trying to stay a step ahead of the copy cats. (Provided to SportsLine)
Having to play midweek games and perceived second-class status became too much for the conference's presidential board. Commissioner Craig Thompson was charged with finding a new TV home. In what was a largely ignored, but significant, deal, he was able to sign a deal with fledgling CSTV in September.
"Us leaving ESPN was the chink in the armor," Thompson said. "They lost a client for the first time ever, so to speak. Not that we meant that much to them."
Time will tell whether the move to CSTV (College Sports Television) was progressive or ill-advised. ESPN is still the 800-pound gorilla but even it can't account for the increasingly fragmented college sports market. Conference USA followed the Mountain West to CSTV, although some of its inventory will remain on ESPN.
Sure, the Mountain West got a 71 percent rights fees increase but it also lost "reach," the pairs of eyeballs that could see its product. CSTV, which debuted in 2003, is on most major cable systems but lags far behind the Worldwide Leader in terms of viewers and clout.
"They realized they were not going to get the attention they deserved for the sports they deserved stuck as one tiny piece of ESPN's (empire)," said CSTV cofounder Brian Bedol.
One industry analyst says CSTV has a good chance to get into 60 million homes in the next year or so. Bedol says the goal is 40 million homes in the next two years.
"It's particularly a great move for a conference like the Mountain West," said the analyst, who did not want to be identified. "Without a large population base you struggle in competition against larger leagues. To create your own destiny is really a great move. There is risk associated with it, I think it's going to work."
Both sides are betting on the idea that they will get better together. The Mountain West is arguably the best non-BCS league. CSTV was founded by Bedol, Steve Greenberg and Chris Bevilacqua. Bedol and Greenberg co-founded Classic Sports Network, which they eventually sold to ESPN. It is now ESPN Classic.
Their financing includes Coca-Cola, JP Morgan and sports entrepreneur Dave Checketts.
Bottom line, college sports' television landscape is changing. Both Fox and ESPN are launching college networks. In the fragmented cable world, networks see a profit in televising Harvard crew, New Mexico State volleyball and Memphis football.
Bedol basically calls the others copycats: "It's like Dunkin' Donuts making cappuccino to respond to Starbucks."
"Ten years ago nobody ever heard of the Golf Channel," Thompson said. "Now 67 million get it. Some could care less except that it's free on their basic service. The Speed network has 73 million. Outdoor Life, 64 million. Hopefully, there is an insatiable appetite for college sports."
The change is worth it for the Mountain West, which has branded itself as the most proactive conference in the country. This week it became the first coalition (non-BCS) league to approve instant replay. It is lobbying hard for an automatic BCS berth, basically asking: What's the difference between us and the Big East?
The Big East has been crippled by the losses of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. It recently lost its anchor berth in the Orange Bowl.
"There is no difference between them and the Big East," said BCS guru Jerry Palm.
Palm's 2004 conference RPI had the Mountain West ranked as the best non-BCS league and sixth overall (ahead of the Big East). Its overall strength of schedule was behind only the Pac-10.
Utah's undefeated season didn't hurt. It became the first non-BCS school to get into a BCS bowl. The Utes completed their perfect season by beating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.
"The success of Utah certainly more than whet everybody's appetite," Thompson said. "This has never been about who can play on the field, it's more driven by marketplace issues. But you have to really play before you can get involved in those conversations."
Existing mostly in television's no-man's land between the West Coast and the Rockies, the conference doesn't seem to have key demographics going for it. But last year 89 percent of its football games were televised, which allowed the quick move to instant replay. The technology already is in place.
It was a stamp of credibility that rapidly growing CSTV first hooked up with the Mountain West. Mountain West TV debuts in 2006 with as many 40 football games and 120 basketball games. Not bad for a conference that was formed out of the rubble of the old 16-team WAC in 1999.
CSTV is also charged with selling six to eight Mountain West games to national networks (either cable or broadcast). Irony of ironies, some of those games could end up on ESPN.
The league's first televised game was Washington-BYU six years ago on a Thursday night. It was eventually asked to play more midweek games. League presidents finally had enough. The midweek games were starting either too early (5:30 p.m. in the Mountain and Pacific time zones) or too late (7:30 or 8).
"We were getting so far away from Saturday football," Thompson said. "Each year incrementally ... (they were) pushing us back to the edges. Our (presidents) said, 'Monday night at 10 o'clock (Eastern Time)? I'm losing thousands of fans.'"
Playing on actual Saturday afternoons should allow the league to get stronger. It had the best bowl winning percentage of any conference last season (2-1 .667). There are key non-conference games next season against Washington, Boston College, Notre Dame, Colorado, UCLA, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arizona and Florida.
TCU moves over from Conference USA as a ninth member, bringing at least a part of the Dallas-Fort Worth market with it.
"TCU is the equivalent of playing a BCS opponent," Thompson said. "They are a top 30 program."
CSTV is banking on it.
In or out?
So what are the Mountain West's chances of getting that automatic qualification to the BCS?
The commissioners are close to a formula. It wouldn't take effect until 2008 but conferences already are on the clock for their performances over a four-year period that ends after 2007.
Remember that there is one more BCS game (two extra berths) beginning after the 2006 season. At least one of those berths will be guaranteed to a current coalition team (from the Sun Belt, WAC, MAC, Mountain West and Conference USA).
How any conference qualifies, though, is going to be based on its overall performance. That performance will take into account some or all of the following:
Number of teams in the top 25.
Strength of schedule.
Number of bowl teams.
The Big East seems to be the most vulnerable, having lost the three schools to the ACC. But it is getting Louisville from Conference USA a season after having exactly one ranked team (Pittsburgh, No. 25). Depending on scheduling, ranking and non-conference record, the number of AQ conferences could fluctuate from year to year.
The six major conferences created the BCS in 1998 (Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Notre Dame). But the threat of legal action by the remaining (or coalition) I-A conferences forced the BCS powers to allow more access.
The truth about Nike
Jim Livengood thought he was looking at a giant tailgate party when he landed in Ho Chi Minh City last month.
"There were probably 5,000-6,000 people outside the airport," Arizona's athletic director said. "I said, 'Oh man, a tailgate reception for us. It was like a huge football game, pregame rally.'"
That Vietnam tradition of welcoming home friends and relatives from trips was the least of Livengood's surprises. He was among five administrations invited by Nike on a 10-day tour of its factories in Vietnam and China.
The perception, especially on some college campuses, is that Nike runs low-paying sweatshops overseas. But Livengood said the group got a truthful and unbiased look at working conditions.
"It's totally different than sometimes the perception is," he said. "The quality of life really is good. It's amazing how much they are taken care of in terms of education of workers, the loan program Nike has set up. It will never be perfect but I came away with a good understanding."
Livengood was joined by Nike school counterparts at Georgia (Damon Evans), Oklahoma (Joe Castiglione), Stanford (Ted Leland) and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. They visited seven or eight factories, personally interviewing workers and management.
Livengood never got the impression employees were "coached" by the company. The most impressive part of the trip might have been a tour through the infamous tunnels used by North Vietnamese troops. The Vietnamese could live for months at a time underground while the U.S. bombed their country.
"I'd never looked at a video that looked at the war through other eyes," said Livengood, who lost friends in the Vietnam War. "I was a little bit apprehensive of how these people would treat us. I asked them, 'Is there animosity towards Americans?' One said, 'That war was 30 years ago, that was relatively a short war. We've fought with other countries for over 200 years.'"
It's being called the biggest game in Fresno State history. For some reason, Southern California has agreed to play the Bulldogs Nov. 19 at the Coliseum.
Pete Carroll has to know that Fresno State is the upset king of this decade, having knocked off 10 BCS teams since 2000 (including the past three in a row). What he might not recall is the teams' last meeting.
Fresno defeated the Trojans in the 1992 Freedom Bowl 24-7, basically kicking off a decade-long malaise in Troy. Coach Larry Smith was fired after the game, which is still called the biggest victory in Fresno history.
Fresno coach Pat Hill thought he had a game with USC last season until the Trojans scheduled Colorado State. Since then he has spent the better part of the past year calling out USC. The Trojans were the only Pac-10 program Fresno never played in the regular season.
"This is a game we have wanted for a long time," Hill said.
Cooler heads finally lined up the game, which still doesn't explain why Carroll agreed to it. Perhaps it was unwillingness to play a non-conference game that late in the season at the Coliseum. But isn't that why there is a Sun Belt Conference? USC already is playing Hawaii, Arkansas and Notre Dame in the non-conference. It needed to fill a hole between its Nov. 12 game at Cal and Dec. 3 home game against UCLA.
Arguably, Fresno is the toughest of the four non-conference opponents. There are virtually no advantages for USC. Fresno has 18 returning starters from a 9-3 team. If USC wins it's supposed to. If it loses, Fresno could wreck a championship run and steal future recruits at the same time.
There will be 15,000-20,000 Bulldogs fans headed to L.A. for the game but attendance is not a problem for the two-time defending champs. Wisdom could be if Fresno pulls off the upset.
Finding enough balls to go around
One of the best stories of the spring has to be in the North Texas backfield. The Mean Green return the past two NCAA rushing champions.
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Patrick Cobbs, the 2003 rushing champ (152.7 yards), went down early in 2004 with a knee injury. No problem. Freshman Jamario Thomas then averaged 180 yards and scored 17 touchdowns in only 10 games.
Coach Darryl Dickey opened spring practice Monday with arguably the best set of running backs in the country. If he can keep both happy, the Mean Green should win their fifth consecutive Sun Belt title.
It is unprecedented that NCAA big wigs smack each other around in public -- until this week.
Rick Neuheisel had his court case bolstered when an NCAA director of enforcement criticized Bill Saum, the NCAA's gambling czar, in court testimony. Dave Didion testified that Saum was too aggressive in pursuing Neuheisel, who admitted to the NCAA he had participated in an NCAA basketball tournament pool.
Neuheisel is suing for unfair termination.
"I thought Bill was trying to use this as a way to let everyone know that he was in charge," Didion said in videotaped testimony.
In an 18-month old e-mail Didion said Saum "wants to make an example of Neuheisel."
Say what you will about the NCAA but it does stand firm behind its employees and rules. Didion's comments are surprising and might indicate a deep rift between Saum and Didion. That rift could be the difference in the case. Neuheisel is suing both the NCAA and Washington.
He contends the NCAA broke its own rules in investigating him. According to reports from the courtroom, Neuheisel's attorneys have scored on these key points:
The NCAA deliberately concealed the purpose of their interview with Neuheisel.
Bylaws forbid investigators from discussing investigations publicly. NCAA president Myles Brand, vice president for enforcement services David Price and Saum spoke publicly shortly after Neuheisel spoke to NCAA investigators.
The BCS commissioners are definitely looking at another poll (instead of a human committee) to replace the Associated Press poll. BCS chairman Kevin Weiberg doesn't favor the inherent risks associated with a human committee that would decide BCS participants. The least of which would be perceived bias and the large size of such a committee. The best idea on the table right now is a new poll created from scratch that would be administered by an organization independent of the BCS.
Just in case you still don't understand why Urban Meyer picked Florida over Notre Dame, check out his statements recently in Florida Today: "I literally had two contracts in front of me ... I saw the '90s and what was going on down here. I don't think there was a coach in the country who wasn't envious or who didn't want to be here. I want a team that plays with that same passion that same swagger. I embrace that tradition. If the other school had had this past decade, I probably would've gone there."