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Portland State still a player in college shuffle
The Big 12 has 10 teams, the Big Ten has 12 teams, the Pac-16 is a pipe dream and the Mountain West went from being bride to bridesmaid yet again.
We’re done now, right?
There’s still one more player to show its cards in the college football restructuring, one that could have a Fiesta Bowl contender playing at PGE Park.
No, the Ducks won’t be kicking off a Rose Bowl campaign at Portland’s new soccer palace.
The Western Athletic Conference has a void to fill with the loss of Boise State, and to hear some western media outlets tell it, Portland State is a prime candidate for the WAC’s replacement plans.
The Vikings will be playing their home schedule at Hillsboro Stadium this year, before returning to the football-only PGE Park for the 2011 season. And with the Big Sky Conference being the point of origin of many of the WAC’s success stories, including Boise, Nevada-Reno and Idaho, Portland State and its accompanying TV market represent low-hanging fruit.
Torre Chisholm, the Vikings’ director of athletics, said he hasn’t thought about the possibility of making the jump. But the school clearly has plenty at stake in the WAC’s decision.
“You can’t deny the greater exposure, and you can’t deny the overall benefit of competing at the bowl level and the awareness and pageantry,” Chisholm said. “Those pieces are irrefutable, but they all come at a cost, too.”
After all the shenanigans of the last two weeks, nobody’s going to put up a big neon sign saying “Pick me!”
But in a teleconference before Boise bolted for the Mountain West, WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who has been brilliant at keeping his conference somewhat relevant after facing several challenges, said he thinks his member schools will act “much sooner than later.”
That action could include Football Championship Subdivision schools, he said.
Portland State has successfully competed against the WAC in the last few years, with a winning percentage in head-to-head competition with WAC schools highlighted, ironically, by a 21-14 loss at Boise State in 2005, a game that was tied in the fourth quarter against a team that finished the season 9-4.
So the competition is there. What about the facilities?
“With the new PGE Park renovation, we’re going to make that a top-quality facility,” Chisholm said. “We’ve played basketball at the Rose Garden and Coliseum before, so we can always revisit that.”
The biggest question is whether Portland State fits the WAC profile, both academically and financially.
Scrooge McDuck doesn’t have enough money in his vault to fill the void between Portland State’s annual athletics budget of $9 million and the average WAC budget of $20 million — a sea of gold that won’t be immediately filled by television revenue from the conference’s ESPN contract.
When Boise and Idaho made the jump, that gap was much smaller, Chisholm said.
“Part of it is just a leap of faith. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “It comes at a cost. If you look at the institutional investment in conferences like the WAC or Sun Belt or Mid-American, all those athletic programs are subsidized heavily by the general university.”
That could be a similar problem at other public institutions apparently on the short list.
Other candidates include UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Sacramento State. Presumably off the list is Montana, the most obvious choice to make the jump but a school that has, in the past, resisted making the promotion from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) to the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
The Grizzlies reportedly would be reluctant to make the jump without being joined by their rivals from Montana State.
Sacramento State and UC Davis are the other highly attractive candidates, with a new football stadium, a history of playing FBS teams and access to two television markets (Sacramento and the Bay Area).
But WAC members San Jose State, Fresno State and Nevada-Reno might be reluctant to see competition for recruits pop up in their fertile ground, particularly with UC Davis having better facilities and a superior academic reputation to the three longtime WAC competitors.
Fresno State, in particular, has made a point of branding itself as the Central Valley’s football team, an edgy alternative to California’s polished Pac-10 programs.
All this, and more, is what Chisholm is faced with as the game of “Musical Conferences” works its way down to the Big Sky level.
“We have to be aware of everything that’s out there,” he said. “The biggest fear is being caught unaware. If something happens, and the Big Sky is minus two schools, our whole conference and our membership is at risk.”
And that could put Chisholm — and all of his Big Sky peers — into a poker game where you have to play offense, not defense, to win.
Nick Christensen, The Hillsboro Argus