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Who are these guys? New WAC is not the old WAC


There was a movie a few years back called “The Net,” in which the government was trying to kill Sandra Bullock over a floppy disk. She got knocked unconscious, and when she woke up all the stuff in her home was gone, and none of her neighbors knew who she was.

This reminds me of the Western Athletic Conference, which is playing its basketball tournament at Orleans Arena again this year.

The West Coast Conference moved out of The Orleans on Tuesday night, and the WAC moved in Wednesday morning. Only none of the neighbors — the Mountain West and Pac-12, which also are holding hoop fests in town through Saturday — knows who the WAC is.

Nobody knows who the WAC is.

Some of us knew what it once was.

The WAC no longer plays football, which must bring a tear to LaVell Edwards’ eye. It plays basketball with nine schools or so, only two of which played at the Orleans as recently as 2011. One of those will be gone after this year.

Anybody not on the WAC payroll who can guess the nine WAC basketball members gets a bye directly to Final Jeopardy.

Contestant: “I’ll take College Basketball Hodgepodge for $100, Alex.”

Alex Trebek: “And the answer is: Utah Valley, Texas-Pan American, Missouri-Kansas City, Idaho, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Cal State Bakersfield, New Mexico State, Seattle U.”

Contestant: “Who are New Mexico State and the Eight Imposters?”

New Mexico State once played in the NCAA Final Four. Lou Henson. Sam Lacey. Jimmy Collins. Retro basketball jerseys with sleeves.

But they could play that Final Jeopardy music until “Wheel of Fortune” comes on, and I never would have come up with Utah Valley, Texas-Pan American, Missouri-Kansas City, Chicago State, Grand Canyon, Cal State Bakersfield and Seattle U. Perhaps I would have come up with Idaho.

We should be glad the Wolverines, Broncs, Kangaroos, Vandals, Cougars, Antelopes, Roadrunners, Aggies and Redhawks are here, but you’ll have to get the kid from “Slumdog Millionaire” to match the WAC teams with their mascots. The WAC schools may not bring as many fans as the Pac-12 teams, or the Mountain West teams, or even 20-Mule Borax teams, but their money’s still good here.

All except Grand Canyon’s I guess.

Grand Canyon, which is located nowhere near the Grand Canyon but in downtown Phoenix, is making the transition to Division I this year. For that reason, it is not eligible for the conference tournament despite finishing in third place.

I guess nobody could figure out how to do a nine-team bracket.

I know these WAC teams are going to try real hard, and one will cut down the nets and become a No. 13 seed in the Big Dance, where it probably will get WACked by some No. 4 seed, probably from the Atlantic 10. And Kangaroos is sort of a cool nickname, and New Mexico State has that 7-foot-5 behemoth from Toronto.

Still, I miss the old WAC.

I miss the WAC that got me through forlorn Saturday afternoons when I was in college.

I went to a small school in New Mexico — our big rival was Grand Canyon — where most of the in-state kids would go home on the weekends, and there was nothing for those of us from the other side of Tucumcari to do.

I would get up early with a couple of other guys from the Big Ten states, and we’d call dibs on the big TV in the dormitory rec room before the football players woke up from their kegger.

We would watch the WAC Game of the Week, because ESPN didn’t exist in 1978, and because roller derby from L.A. didn’t come on until late.

At first, we made jokes about the WAC, because it wasn’t the Big Ten.

But the WAC teams played in these huge arenas, and they had colorful coaches such as Don Haskins and Norm Ellenberger, who wore turquoise jewelry. Connie Alexander and Irv Brown, the announcers, knew the WAC players like we knew the Big Ten players.

Big Fred Roberts at Brigham Young, Charles “Tub” Bradley at Wyoming, Michael Cooper at New Mexico. These became familiar names. Haskins had this big guy named Dave Feitl, though he might have come later, after Tiny Archibald. And Pace Mannion at Utah, a big 6-7 guard hailing from Chaparral High in Las Vegas, Connie Alexander said, who had a cool name and a mod haircut.

The old WAC soon became my conference of choice.

But the old WAC eventually would become the new WAC. It would have 16 teams; it would stretch from sea to shining sea (or so it seemed); it would have UNLV; it would have Billy Tubbs; it would have quadrants.

I think those quadrants are what killed it.

Nebraska ultimately going to the Big Ten probably had something to do with it, too. Conference expansion and realignment, and that whole domino effect thing.

So now the constantly evolving/barely surviving WAC has Kangaroos and a Grand Canyon and an abyss into which to toss a mostly forgotten legacy. To some of us old-timers, it’s sort of like when Sandy Bullock returned home after that knock on the head and found all of her stuff missing.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.