Craig Thompson graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1978. He worked in media relations and promotions at Kansas State and for the Kansas City Kings.
“The NBA didn’t seem like my world,’’ Thompson said. “I was able to get a job as the assistant commissioner of the Metro Conference in 1983. We had all the sports but football.’’
Thompson laughed slightly and said: “How would this have been as a football conference? Florida State, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Louisville, Cincinnati, Southern Miss and Tulane. Those were the teams in the league when I got there.
“We wanted to start football, but Bobby Bowden didn’t want to share the revenues he was bringing in at Florida State as a football independent.’’
The Metro Conference was in business from 1975 to 1995. If it had started football in 1983, the Big East would not have added the sport in 1991, and … well, TV money and football still would’ve ruled big-time college sports and the conference chaos of this decade would’ve ensued.
Thompson has been involved as commissioner of the Mountain West. He will be back at his alma mater on Thursday night, watching UNLV from his league open against the Gophers.
After all the maneuvering of the past three years, it’s remarkable the Mountain West finds itself starting 2013 with two six-team divisions of mostly viable football programs. The media that covers the league voted for this order of finish in the divisions:
MOUNTAIN: Boise State, Utah State, Air Force Academy, Wyoming, Colorado State, New Mexico. WEST: Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State, Nevada, UNLV, Hawaii.
It was January that Boise State and San Diego State decided to stay, rather than stick with plans to move to the Big East in football. It was July 1 when the Mountain West landed San Jose State and Utah State, the two strongest teams from the Western Athletic Conference, which was dropping football.
“San Jose and Utah State brought us two strong programs and got us to the magic number 12,’’ Thompson said. “We’re now able to play in divisions with a conference title game. We’re going to be on CBS, right after the SEC title game on Dec. 7.’’
The league looks good, with 11 teams in all sports that are compatible geographically and with Hawaii as a football-only member. And yet the raiding from the big-dollar leagues never stops.
Gary Andersen spent four years at Utah State, and the Aggies wound up in back-to-back Famous Idaho Potato Bowls in 2011-12. Mike MacIntyre took San Jose State from 1-12 to 11-2 in three seasons.
Last Dec. 10, Wisconsin hired Anderson to replace Bret Bielema, and Colorado hired MacIntyre to replace a guy who lost to Sacramento State.
Losing coaches is one thing. Losing schools is quite another. What happens if the Big 12 decides to get back to the magic number and comes after Boise State?
Thompson admitted there’s not much the Mountain West can do to defend itself — not with an annual TV deal of $18 million, compared with hundreds of millions for the power conferences.
The division between the SEC, Big Ten, the ACC, the Pac-12 and the Big 12 is so substantial that those five conferences (plus Notre Dame) are expected to break away and form Division IV in football early next year.
The rules for those 64 schools would include the right to pay a stipend of $3,000 per year (or more) to football players on scholarship. If it carries over to basketball, the new 10-team, basketball-only Big East would be included. Of course, if all sports of both genders were not included in stipends, it would be a lawsuit screaming to happen.
Thompson has expressed skepticism that the power conferences will break away completely. And he’s not sure if those school being empowered with a stipend will change the landscape that much.
“Because of the TV deals, it’s already like … like, Redwood Falls against Eden Prairie,’’ Thompson said. “There are the big five conferences, and then there are the Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA, Sun Belt and the American [the Big East remnant named the American Athletic Conference].
“I’m confident in saying that we’re the best of those.’’
That’s true today, before the raiding that figures to surface if the Division IV/stipend era becomes official early in 2014.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.