Hawaii’s Fight Against the Formation of the Mountain West
The Warriors vowed to never play one of the “Breakaway Eight”
Hawaii was pissed they were not initially invited to the Mountain West
“Don’t Mess with Hawaii.” That’s the saying, right? Oh. Well, move over Texas.
In 1999, following a “secret coup” meeting at the Denver International Airport, eight schools—Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming—broke away from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). They formed the Mountain West Conference (MWC).
The “Breakaway Eight” did not include the University of Hawaii in their exodus.
The reason for the split was simple: the “Eight” believed they could generate more revenue if they formed a new, smaller conference. The WAC had expanded to 16 schools in 1996, becoming the conference of “16 schools, nine states, four time zones, 4,000 miles, and no limits.”
It seemed like a good idea at the time—creating a conference that reached from Tulsa to Hawaii—but the coalition quickly proved unwieldy.
If you’ve paid attention to college sports for any length of time, you know that conferences break apart. Institutions sever connections with longtime athletic rivals. It happens. While these moves are disruptive, most left-behind schools deal with their disappointment behind closed doors. Then they look to the future. Indeed most WAC institutions handled the establishment of the MWC with restraint.
But not the University of Hawaii. UH, led by President Kenneth Mortimer, responded to the Breakaway Eight the way a jilted lover handles being dumped. “I didn’t want to talk to anyone,” Mortimer said after learning of the breakup. “It was a shock. The best thing to do in that kind of time is go up in a corner somewhere and get hold of yourself.”
After the shock wore off, however, Hawaii came out of that corner swinging. There were threats and ultimatums. There were earnest discussion about schools actually honoring their commitments.
“UH must turn its back on the backstabbers,” the Honolulu Advertiser seethed. Mortimer agreed. He promised that Hawaii would cut all ties with the Breakaway Eight—“We’re through with those teams,” he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin matter of factly. UH would not schedule contests with any of the breakaway schools in the future. Ever.
The timing for a noble stand was not ideal for Hawaii. Fred von Appen’s three year tenure as UH’s head football coach (1996-1998) had been a disaster. The Rainbow Warriors went 0-12 in 1998. Hawaii’s football fortunes had never been lower.
Then there were the perennial challenges for the nation’s 50th state. The travel expenses born by Hawaii’s conference mates had always been a significant issue. Until 1994, UH paid half a million dollars annually in travel subsidies to its WAC partners. The institution also had the NCAA’s incentive to offer: teams visiting Hawaii were allowed to schedule an extra game each year.
But wrangling athletic partners still remained difficult. Perhaps even the leftover WAC schools would not want the hassle. “The feeling here is: Cutting Hawaii loose would save the league a lot of money,” came the report from a post-split conference of the remaining WAC members.
In the weeks that followed the establishment of the Mountain West, the leadership of UH and the Aloha State press teetered on the brink of panic. “What’s going to happen to the program here?” asked Star-Bulletin columnist Paul Arnett. “Hawaii’s options are limited. It’s either go down with the ship, join the Big West, or be an independent. Not exactly the best choices, but that’s what happens when you don’t prepare properly for the storm of the century.”
President Mortimer saw the split in starkest terms. “I thought their act was a heinous and immoral act,” he told an interviewer 15 years later. “Not that they couldn’t do it, but the way they did it by secret meetings. To me, they were a violation of trust as well as a violation of the law.”
No one even informed UH in person that it had been left behind; Mortimer learned about the breakup through the media.
Incensed, Mortimer saw no point in trying to negotiate UH’s way into the Mountain West, even as rumors circulated that UH and Fresno State might be added to the original eight schools. Mortimer wanted none of it: “I wasn’t about to join them.” Moreover, he sure as hell wasn’t going back to UH paying travel subsidies in order to win over schools who, until just days before, the Rainbow Warriors had considered their equal partners.
Almost immediately upon learning of the split, Mortimer engaged a Hawaiian law firm to do a “legal analysis of the breakaway action.” Three days later, the lawyers handed over a viability study of what it would mean for the remaining WAC schools to sue the former WAC schools.
Mortimer presented his legal research at a meeting of the WAC council. His task was to convince the group that legal action was a viable course. Revenge and/or justice was possible.
Mortimer, an expert in higher education, saw the suit in terms of its core elements. The WAC was incorporated in Colorado. Therefore the laws governing corporate behavior in the state applied. “A number of the members of the corporation [the WAC] had got together and conspired to do harm to the other members of the corporation,” Mortimer summarized. The Breakaway Eight had violated the Racketeering Act, thereby committing a federal offense.
The WAC university presidents argued over what to do with this information. The analysis estimated that the legal fees for the suit would be about one million dollars. And what would be the outcome? What kind of damages might be won?
One by one, the presidents backed away from legal action. The excuses came from all sides. The California state schools believed they were prohibited from suing one of their own (SDSU). The question of the Air Force Academy as a federal entity was raised—could it even be sued? Also, one president pointed out, attacking Colorado State University in the courts of its own state seemed like a long shot. As the discussion carried on, it became clear that only UH wanted to fight. “If it’s a violation of a federal act,” Mortimer pleaded, “we’ll throw them in jail.”
Mortimer found no takers. “I’m the only one, at the end of it all, who really thought we should pursue the lawsuit,” Mortimer recalled. Too bad. It would have made for an interesting case study on the enforceability of fidelity in college athletics.
Picking up the Pieces
The WAC survived the breakup. The conference added Nevada, Boise State, and Louisiana Tech in 2000 and 2001. Then Utah State, Idaho, and New Mexico State in 2005.
The University of Hawaii quickly backtracked on its vow not to play former WAC schools, starting with renewing its rivalry with BYU.
As for the defender of UH’s athletic honor—Ken Mortimer—he resigned as president of the university in 2001. Hawaii Governor Ben Cayetano praised Mortimer for, among other things, “helping to secure the autonomy” the UH would need to move forward as a flagship university.
For its part, UH football experienced a post breakup renaissance under head coach June Jones far beyond what even the program’s most ardent fans could have hoped for. In the season immediately following their rejection by the MWC, and their 0-12 campaign, the Rainbow Warriors had the best single-season turnaround in NCAA history. The ’99 team won nine games and a share of the WAC championship.
Bowl games followed in 2002, 2003, and 2004. And in 2006 and 2007. Jones’ Run-and-Shoot offense exploded. Timmy Change became the NCAA’s all-time leader in passing yards. Then quarterback Colt Brennan took over. He led the Warriors (UH dropped “Rainbow” in 2001, before taking it back in 2013) to a Sugar Bowl appearance and a #12 BCS ranking in 2007.
It all paid off.
In December 2010, with Utah breaking away for the Pac-10 and BYU for independent status, the Mountain West extended an offer to the University of Hawaii to join the conference.
In 2012, UH football began play in the Mountain West. Ken Mortimer must have been proud. Or pissed. I’m not sure.