Fresno State Follows Mulligan by Fleeing the Not-So-Big West

Fresno State decided to leave the Big West four months after Bill Mulligan did.

You knew they couldn't go on without each other.

The Big West used to be an athletic conference that housed 10 institutions of higher learning. Now, it just loses its institutions, higher or otherwise. Mulligan, Jerry Tarkanian, Fresno State--this time next year, all will be gone.

Mulligan got out because he couldn't stand losing to Fresno State, among about eight others. Tarkanian is getting out because he couldn't beat the NCAA.

Fresno State?

The Bulldogs are getting out because they're tired of beating Cal State Fullerton and the University of the Pacific and getting nothing more out of it than a trip to the California Raisin Bowl. Nice prize. You go 11-1 on the football field, dominate your conference, nudge your way into the top 25--and you get to play your bowl game against Toledo in Fresno.

In Fresno, the idea is to get out of Fresno.

Starting in 1992, Fresno will be playing for a trip to San Diego, where the Holiday Bowl is housed. It will play in the WAC, a conference that wins national football championships and Heisman Trophies. "A higher level of competition," Fresno Athletic Director Gary Cunningham calls it.

Read: A higher level of football competition. Basketball? Baseball? UNLV makes it to the Final Four. Where is the WAC? Cal State Long Beach and Fullerton make it to the College World Series, at least in those years when Fullerton's invitation isn't lost in the mail. Where is the WAC?

But the WAC has Ty Detmer and Brigham Young and Earl Bruce and Colorado State and the Air Force Academy. It plays big-time college football, something the Big West never did and never will, and if that's what matters most, the Big West needs some time to contemplate this loss.

Gain something from it. Knowledge, perhaps. Fresno left because the WAC offered something the Big West couldn't provide it. San Jose State, the other legitimate Division I-A football school in the Big West, is pondering a similar move. If your level of football isn't high enough to keep the Fresnos and the San Joses, maybe your level of football is trying to tell you something.

From the beginning, the Big West (nee PCAA) was a Division I-A imposter. It rode San Diego State's coattails until 1976, when San Diego got bored and did the WAC thing first. Utah State was the eventual replacement. Now, Fresno goes, and the leading alternatives--Nevada (Reno), Boise State, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Sacramento--all have one thing in common.

None play Division I-A football.

Soon, the Big West might be able to say the same thing. Soon, it might not have a choice. At the present Division I-A Or Bust pace, Big West football programs will keep dropping like flies--by their own volition (Fresno) or otherwise (Fullerton, Long Beach, take your pick).

Certain criteria must be met for a conference to maintain Division I-A status, and Fresno just took a chunk with it. In an eight-team football conference such as the Big West, five schools must have 30,000-seat stadiums or average 17,000 for home games. Fresno was one of the Big West's five.

The timing for a downscale to sanity, to Division I-AA where Nevada and Boise currently reside, has never been better. With Fresno, the Big West was a bad Division I-A football conference. Without Fresno, the Big West could be the Big Ten of Division I-AA. Nevada played Georgia Southern for the 1990 Division I-AA title. At that level, Pacific and Utah State could be contenders, too. Fullerton might even break even.

With it, Fresno takes probably the most well-rounded athletic program the Big West had. Gary Colson's basketball team reached the conference tournament final this spring and now, with UNLV ineligible, the Bulldogs figure to be favored in 1992. Bob Bennett's baseball team went to the College World Series. Red Estes' track team is among the best in the West.

It also takes away the most dreaded road trip in the Big West, leaving that honor, undisputed, to Utah State.

Fresno: Where the grapes are wrinkled, and so are most of the people.

Fresno: Where the IHOP is always hopping.

Fresno: Where the Red Wave rules because real waves wouldn't touch it.

Mulligan once noted that "everybody always asks me why they get so many Chicago players at Fresno. I tell them, 'It's easy. They think they're going to California.' "

On the day he resigned, Mulligan cracked, "At least this gets me out of the Fresno trip."

A year from now, everybody in the Big West gets out of the Fresno trip.

Expect a Mulligan comeback.

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