64-year-old Mountain West commissioner, Craig Thompson, is a lifer and all that goes with it. With 22-years as the only commissioner for the MW, Thompson’s groomed a 42-year sports administration career that looks almost textbook by all accounts.
His look, demeanor and crafted communications are of a controlled and measured brand. On the surface, it seems to bear strength and know-how. At the same time, he’s still largely unknown despite the criticisms.
To every story or legacy, all that is real and actual is found in the gray areas that makes it whole.
The knocks on Thompson:
Common disparaging comments on Thompson over the years – “It’s a terrible TV deal.” “He’s a charade.” “He’s out-of-touch.” “He’s just a conference mouthpiece.” “Fire him.”
The six-year $270 million CBS and Fox media deals Thompson led earlier this year was historic for the conference (OK, this is more a pro than a con, technically). It amounts to a 300% jump to $4 million annually for 10 of the 12 conference members, but it came with some lumps.
Basically, Thompson faced legal action from Boise State when he publicly reneged a previous and additional $1.8 million annual payout. Thompson quickly backtracked and the litigation paused. Usually, business diligence and foresight bakes in things like this, which also helps avoid the ire of the other conference members.
Relatively speaking on media deals, the AAC and MW are often the compared conferences at the top of the Group of Five. Peruse the AAC media deal for another compare-and-contrast perspective on Thompson.
We can go back a few more years on the schools Thompson lost on his watch and the ones that got away.
Losing TCU, Utah and BYU are top of the list. Also, not corralling in Wichita State and Gonzaga come to mind. There was even an earlier opportunity to invite Boise State back in the early 2000’s, which could have had a much earlier cause-and-effect difference to the MW trajectory.
Speaking of Gonzaga basketball, Thompson prematurely announced they could not add them after the public courting. It surprised Gonzaga. Yes, the WCC provided better scheduling and more revenue and yes, Gonzaga would lose money in the current MW structure. Still, this is where a commissioner earns his money to craft and negotiate. At the least, it was not a good impression all-around.
On a bit of a lighter note, the Mountain West logo and public presence has been criticized for an amateurish, dime store look-and-feel. It ties back to Thompson, since essentially, he is the persona of the Mountain West.
Thompson’s latest high-profile news follows a flip-flop move that first announced a delayed 2020 season followed just days later cancelling the season. There’s now expectation for Thompson to recant again to play some form of a 2020 football given the Big 10’s re-decision; and quite possibly a similar Pac-12 announcement coming this week as well.
It would be a good bet we see a triple flip-flop to play ball given the LA Bowl debut and tie-ins with the Pac-12.
Overall, there is a public impression of indecisiveness; of following-the-crowd; of being too non-committal and of just being vague.
But we need to further frame today’s unique predicament - Thompson and company are a huge underdog vs. the pandemic, the unbelievable western fires, the lack of a consistent health policy from region-to-region and the financial and political pressures. And it doesn’t help with the closer-in pressures from the schools/coaches and the political-sports hacks.
Almost anyway Thompson cuts it is a paralyzing task that is also deeply reliant on the negotiations and logistics for testing. For all this and trying to get everyone in lockstep in a tight window, it might be fair to give him a 2020 pass.
All said, his degree of leadership is still on display.
What history will say of Thompson:
A commissioners’ reason to exist is to improve the conference. In short, Thompson has done that.
Behind the curtains and at the controls is a man who’s well-respected by his peers, coaches and administrators for his fortitude, innovativeness and series of large-scale accomplishments.
It started back in 1998 when several former WAC schools wanted to break away to create a new conference. At that time, Thompson was actually the second choice for the commish job.
By 1999, Thompson had a seven-year $48 million deal with ESPN. In a few short years with a couple bowl ties and a set of Hall of Fame coaches (LaVell Edwards, Sonny Lubick, Fisher DeBerry, John Robinson), the MW reached a major milestone to become part of the BCS.
Though Thompson achieved the goal to get into the BCS, its inequalities were detrimental and limiting. For the benefit of college athletics as a whole, Thompson was among the first to promote the need for a college football playoff system (CFP). In 2009, he pitched to Congress its reasoning of fairness and economic equity over the BCS model. The CFP model came to fruition in 2014 and its impact is on-going.
The CFP in many ways represents Thompson’s mindset of equality for all conferences not just the mainstream ones. Spreading the wealth and allowing more programs to build better and better “products” is a cornerstone philosophy for Thompson.
In 2006, Thompson and company pioneered a small-scale conference TV network. Though it faced struggles not keeping key schools happy with exposure, it continually lost money until the network went dark in 2012. This move set in motion the other conferences. While Thompson took the arrows, the power conferences learned from it and made huge financial gains.
From 2010-2013, Thompson and the MW were amidst a chaotic chess match for survival with the WAC. Basically, losing BYU and Utah signaled the end of the Mountain side, but a near-simultaneously gain of Nevada and Fresno State kept the MW just alive.
Altogether, including keeping Boise and San Diego State from jumping ship, the moves Thompson made kept the MW moving forward and signaled the death knells for WAC football, ending when those programs came into the MW.
Of course, the CBS and Fox media deals goes without saying. It’s a major milestone.
What’s next for Thompson?
Indications seem to say he’ll remain with the MW to his retirement.
Thompson’s apparently turned down past job offers, including each time an AD role opens up at his University of Minnesota alma mater, where he earned his BA in Journalism in 1978.
Back in 2017, Thompson’s said he’d stay on for another three to five years until he “completes the job” with the MW. The recent media rights deal seems to signal that phase.
He’s equally indicated the MW truly means a lot to him with much still to accomplish.
In pure psychosomatic speculation, logic would say Thompson’s laying the groundwork for the right successor, which is a modern, savvier version of himself, along with the next digital innovation to stay ahead of the competition to assure the MW a brighter future – which in turn, helps cement a legacy to bookend his career.