The Mountain West Conference completed their 20th season of existence this past sports season. Although this celebratory season was cut short due to obvious reasons, it’s still something to recognize. We will freely admit that we didn’t do much content recognizing the past twenty years on this site due to committing our time and energy elsewhere. That being said, this post is aimed at highlighting the top twenty moments in Mountain West history. They are certainly more moments and arguably even better moments than these, but this is the list we came up with.
Note: This list is mostly in chronological order.
Another note: FatDuckUW contributed the ideas to many of these top moments.
1. MWC formed (1998)
Birthed out of the chaos that came from the WAC expanding to sixteen teams in a high-risk move, Utah and BYU were unhappy with the four four-team quadrants rather than two eight-team divisions. Those two teams, along with Air Force, Wyoming, and Colorado State, met to decide their futures. That future ended up forming a new conference, and they reached the minimum requirement of eight teams when they brought San Diego State, New Mexico, and UNLV out of the WAC with them. Thus, the Mountain West Conference was born and spanned across five states in what was mostly a small geographic location.
2. Craig Thompson becomes Commissioner (1998)
Like him or not, Craig Thompson is the only commissioner the Mountain West Conference has ever had. He is known for his trademark locks of hair and some polarizing decisions (or lack of decisions) during his tenure. Also, fair or not, since he’s been the only one to hold the position, everything that has happened in the conference is tied back to him.
3. Utah as the original BCS Buster (2005)
History was made around fifteen years ago when Alex Smith led the Utes to their magical undefeated season, destroying Pitt in a 35-7 game that wasn’t that close. Utah made the most of their time in the national spotlight, playing in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day. This marked the first time the “little guy” got to play against the “big boys” in a meaningful bowl game, and they not only showed they belonged but also won.
4. Utah with the #1 pick in the NFL and NBA drafts (2005)
This was a big year for the Utah Utes and gave some credibility to the Mountain West as a football and basketball conference. Andrew Bogut wasn’t seen as a franchise-altering talent after putting up big numbers in college. Still, he was seen as a player with the ability to be a productive long-term NBA player (injuries aside, he was a quality player). Similarly, Alex Smith went #1 overall the same year in football after an impressive junior campaign. Although it took a few years for him to find his footing, he’s had a long career as a starting QB in the NFL. Producing one #1 pick in a sport is excellent, especially for a MWC school. Having two in the same year is quite an accomplishment.
5. The MWC adds TCU in 2005 as their 9th member (2005)
Although announced in January of 2004, Texas Christian University officially became the 9th member of MWC in July of 2005. In the short-term, it gave the conference an odd number of teams and an uneven schedule. But in the long-term, TCU joined with BYU and Utah to become one of the pillars of the conference and help them ascend to new heights as some of the best mid-major teams year in and year out. More on the Horned Frogs and their success in the Mountain West further down.
6. The (failed) Mountain West Network (2006)
Long before conference networks were a thing, the Mtn. premiered in 2006 as the first of its kind, the first network to feature content solely on one conference. It featured tons of games (mostly football and basketball, but Olympic sports as well), plus news updates, shows with coaches, and the typical pre/post-game analysis. However, it was doomed from the start with BYU and Utah releasing statements of displeasure, not even a year in. The other issue was it didn’t have an extensive viewership reach (sound familiar PAC12 Network?) as it was only available on DirectTV, making it difficult to give programs national exposure. Plus, it was just bleeding money, and media deals are supposed to do the opposite, in case that wasn’t obvious. The Mtn. officially ceased operations in June of 2012, but the damage was done. Actually, the damage kept going, as the conference didn’t have a backup plan for airing their games at the time of shutting down their network.
7. Utah beats Bama (2009)
Utah made another appearance in a BCS Bowl as a member of the Mountain West, this time in the Sugar Bowl. In the Superdome, pretty much a local game with Alabama with Utah having to go across the country, the Utes jumped out to a 21-0 lead after a quarter and never looked back. It was one thing to be Pitt in ‘05, as they were a good team that year. But this is Bama, one of the bluest blue-bloods in college football. And a team from the MWC conference beat them in a BCS game. A historic win for Utah and the conference.
8. Strasburg wins national pitcher of the year & the #1 overall pick (2009).
Stephen Strasburg was nearly un-hittable as a junior for the Aztecs. He went 13-1 with an ERA of 1.32 in 109 innings, tallying 195 strikeouts to only 19 walks. All of this resulted in Strasburg winning the Dick Howser Trophy (national college baseball player of the year) and National Pitcher of the Year Award in his final collegiate year. To cap it all off, he was taken #1 overall by the Washington Nationals. It provided national exposure to what was already a top baseball program in SDSU and gave the MWC #1 overall picks in all three major sports in a five-year span.
9. TCU reaches #3 in the nation (2009)
This is the highest-ranking a Mountain West team has ever received. TCU was a multi-year powerhouse (more on that later), and this was a prime example. The Horned Frogs beat Virginia and Clemson (before they were Clemson) in their non-conference portion of the schedule, and they destroyed the other MWC teams on their way to an undefeated regular season. The only close conference game was 20-17 against Air Force, and their defense was elite all year, only allowing 20-plus points two games all year. Sure it wasn’t a happy ending, with a loss in the Fiesta Bowl to Boise State (then in the WAC), but TCU was a nationally respected team.
10. Jimmermania (2010-2011)
Jimmer Fredette was simply a sensation during his college basketball career at BYU. He could seemingly shoot from anywhere on the court and made unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot. As a senior, he averaged 28.9 points per game on 45% shooting (on over 20 shots per game). Jimmer averaged 31.4 ppg in the MWC, scored 52 points in a conference tourney game, beat Kawhi Leonard’s undefeated SDSU team on national TV, and made it to the Sweet 16. He capped his college career by earning All-American honors as well as being named the Naismith national player of the year award. The most discussed college player for over a season was a Cougar in the Mountain West Conference.
11. TCU playing in the Rose Bowl (2011)
The Grandaddy of them all and the Horned Frogs were there. This was the cap to their impressive three-year peak of being really really good. This was a low-scoring battle, with two of the better defenses in the country that year between TCU and Wisconsin. The Horned Frogs won 21-19 and saw Andy Dalton and Tank Carder take home the offensive and defensive MVP awards. The Rose Bowl was the third different BCS Bowl won by a MWC team, and the third difference conference it defeated.
12. Bowl Challenge Cup History (2004-2011)
For those not familiar, the Bowl Challenge Cup is awarded to the conference with the highest winning percentage in bowl games each year (minimum three bowl games), beginning with the 2002-2003 bowl season. The Mountain West has won the cup four times, more than any other conference. They went 2-1 n 04-05, 4-1 in 07-08, then 4-1 in both the 09-10 and 10-11 bowl cycles. It’s not quite the same as a BCS/NY6 win or National Championship, but it does make the conference look credible when it matches up against other conferences in the post-season.
13. Conference Expansion: Mass Exodus (2011-2012)
The Mountain West was no immune from the conference expansion and moving around during these years. The failed TV network and some other moves or lack of moves left some of the most influential schools disgruntled. Utah got an invite from the PAC and bolted. BYU wanted to keep pace with their rival, didn’t get a P5 invite, but decided to embark on life as an independent to try to become another Notre Dame. A year later, TCU was set to join the Big East, but before that could even take place, the Big12 (a much better geographical fit) invited them instead. Over a two year period, the three best teams in the conference left for three different paths.
14. Conference Expansion: New Blood (2011-2013)
During this time, the Mountain West was trying their best to expand and become a conference equal to the traditional power ones. Boise State accepted an invitation to join the conference, and for about five days (before Utah announced they would leave), it seems like the four top mid-majors at the time would all be in the same conference. The best-case scenario would have been if the Big12 imploded, and the MWC likely would’ve absorbed many of those schools. The worst case was when Boise State and San Diego State were going to join the Big East (before Boise State even set foot in MWC). Instead, there was some sort of a middle ground. Over a three year period, former WAC members joined the Mountain West. Boise State in 2011 (overlapping with TCU for one season). Then Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii (football only) in 2012. Finally, Utah State and San Jose State brought the conference to its current 12 members in 2013 as football in the WAC folded.
15. Inaugural conference championship game (2013)
At this time, conference championship games became all the rage. Around half the conference didn’t play them, as it was only reserved for those with 12 or more teams. 20013 was the year the MWC had enough teams to get involved and begin to benefit from extra game revenue as well as hype and exposure. The original game featured Fresno State, defeating Utah State in Fresno by a score of 24-17. It remains the highest attended game by a large margin, with a crowd of 31,362. In the seven years of the championship game, seven teams have played in the game, with Fresno State and Boise State having four appearances each. San Diego State is the only other team with multiple championship berths.
16. MWC sending five teams to NCAA Tourney (2013)
For years, The Mountain West was first and foremost a strong basketball conference. One so strong that many years it was on par with the “Power 6” conferences (including the Big East here, not the AAC). This could not have been more evident than during March Madness in 2013. The MWC sent five teams that year (tied for third-most among conferences, tied with the PAC12 and Big12, and more than the SEC and ACC); New Mexico (29-5), Colorado State (25-8), UNLV (25-9), SDSU (22-10), and Boise State (21-10), with the Lobos being a #3 seed and the Revels being a #5 seed. Sure only two of those teams won a tourney game, but it was still a big moment for the conference.
17. Boise State winning the Fiesta Bowl (2014)
Boise State had joined the conference a few years prior but laid an egg losing to TCU to ruin their hopes in reaching a BCS bowl in their inaugural 2011 season. The next year they had a good, but not great 10-2 season before the wheels fell off in 2013. However, in 2014, the first year with Bryan Harsin, they came back strong and rode a huge hot streak all the way to their third Fiesta Bowl appearance and victory. It was their first without Chris Petersen and their first in the Mountain West. For the MWC, it was their first (and only to date) with any team under their current membership, and the conference’s only New Year’s Six bowl appearance.
18. Nevada’s Men’s Basketball Relevance (2016-2019)
Love them or hate them, the Wolf Pack had great success under the sometimes shirtless Eric Musselman. A team comprised of mostly former top recruits turned transfers went 100-30 during his tenure. Led by Jordan Caroline, Kendall Stephens, and Caleb and Cody Martin, they lost in the first round of the NCAA tourney in 2017. They came back on a mission the next year, with 29-8 record and just three losses in conference play. They made it to the Sweet 16, where they lost an incredible game by one-point to tourney darling Loyola. The 2018-2019 season with filled with more regular-season success, only three regular-season losses, but another quick first-round exit in the big dance. Still, they were nationally ranked and relevant for three years.
19. The MWC has 9 Power 5 wins (2019).
The Mountain West had some huge wins in their non-conference slate last year. Most notably, they beat teams from Power 5 schools nine times, tied for the most with the SEC. This was three more than the AAC and more than the other three group of 5 conferences combined. Defeating household names like Arkansas, Florida State, UCLA, and Purdue gave the conference some national attention and showed that when given opportunities, MWC teams can compete with schools with more resources.
20. The new media deal (2020)
The much-discussed and scrutinized new media deal was unveiled this past January. There were many questions about how this deal would compare to the one the American conference got before them, but the deals seem to prioritize different things. It resulted in ending their relationship with ESPN in favor of Fox and continuing with CBS Sports Network. The MWC contract spans six years, is worth a total of $270 million, and will result in about $4 million annually to ten of its twelve schools. Hawaii gets less as a football-only member. The most contentious part of the deal is Boise State continuing to negotiate their home games as a separate package, resulting in the school receiving $1.8 million more than the other schools each year. Craig Thompson said this would be the last time BSU receives this deal, which triggered the school to sue the conference. For now, the two sides have publicly agreed to drop the lawsuit and keep the deal, which of course, angers the other members of the conference. Despite the controversy, it was a huge moment in the history of the conference.
Your turn: What other moments deserve to be discussed?