Surprising news broke last Wednesday when Craig Thompson, the only comissioner the Mountain West has ever had, announced he will retire at the end of the calendar year.
: Craig Thompson Stepping Down as Mountain West Commissioner After 24 Years pic.twitter.com/EOiSrSKS6M— Mountain West (@MountainWest) September 14, 2022
According to Thompson, he completed his to-do list and is looking forward to the next stage of his life. His crowning achievement will probably be seen as one of the creators and driving forces of the new twelve-team playoff model that was recently approved.
On the other hand, his tenure at the peak of Moutain West leadership was often met with criticism. Mainly, fans thought he didn’t take enough risks and tended to be reactive instead of proactive in his decisions.
Regardless of how people feel about Craig Thompson, his time at the helm is coming to an end, and now the focus turns to who will replace him. Today’s post examines some potential candidates, as well as the main tasks that person will be stepping into.
Note that the names on this list are all speculation.
List of potential replacements
He is the current Big West commissioner, and he has worked in the Mountain West for many years. During his time with both conferences, he has had lots of experience working with basketball. Butterly also took the lead with MWC broadcasting on both TV and radio. He continued that work in the Big West, leading negotiations with ESPN and helping the conference increase its broadcasting from an average of 60 games per year to 900 games per year. Butterly has an impressive resume, to be sure.
The longtime Mountain West deputy commissioner has been with Thompson and the conference since the beginning, with most of that time serving as Thompson’s right-hand man. It is very likely that Gilliland has been groomed by Thompson with the intent of being ready to step into the head role. However, it is just as likely those making the decision will want some new blood with the idea that Gilliland eases the transition process, meshing stability with fresh ideas.
Tim is the deputy commissioner for the Big 12, a role he has had for the past fourteen seasons. Prior to that, he was the athletic director at Kansas State, so he should be able to relate to the Mountain West ADs. He oversaw the day-to-day operations of the conference for years and helped them navigate realignment and expansion. It can be assumed he played a major role in weighing the pros and cons of adding teams and also kept more existing teams from leaving.
Jamie has spent the past eight years as the Pac-12 deputy commissioner and was the Big West commissioner prior to that. He also has vast experience with basketball and broadcasting. Over the past year, his role has shifted to focus on finance, strategy, and communications, which includes negotiating bowl tie-ins. Zaninovich has the well-rounded experience and seems to have a great resume if he wants to become the leader of a conference again.
What will the new commissioner face when taking over?
At least as much as possible in the college football world, which is to say, not much.
In the past few years, the conference has solidified bowl ties, signed a new media rights deal, and now has a path to the college football playoff. Unlike the PAC, they will not be stepping into a disaster, but rather, they will have a solid foundation in which to grow the conference.
This will always be difficult for a mid-major conference. With the Mountain West, in particular, at least four teams have been close to leaving the conference for the American. Plus, every single team would leave for a P5 conference if they were invited. Finding a way to keep the conference together should be a top priority. How to go about doing that will be a challenge. Maybe that means adding teams, and maybe it’s standing pat. Something that makes everyone happy is more money, which leads to the next point.
Another media deal
Yes, the MWC just signed one in January of 2020. However, at the end of this calendar year, the deal will already be halfway over. This was by design and something Thompson got right, as the media landscape is constantly changing, and locking into a long-term deal could prove to be a massive mistake. But this next deal could catapult the Mountain West into a spending bracket that can hold its own with facilities, recruiting, and NIL, even if it will never be close to that of the five power conferences. Doing so would also help the MWC become the top mid-major conference (more on that later).
A more vocal presence
The chief criticism of Thompson is that he came across as too passive and wasn’t willing to take risks. It can be assumed that he was working hard behind the scenes; however, his silence often spoke louder than his words, and that was a problem, no matter what he was doing out of the spotlight. The new commissioner needs to be able to command a press conference and say all the right things, even if it is just words. For example, “we are constantly looking every opportunity to make us a better conference” sounds infinitely better than “we don’t have to do anything,” even if the latter is technically true. While they don’t have to be Mike Aresco, someone who inspires more confidence would be helpful.
Becoming the top mid-major conference.
The Mountain West has always played second-fiddle to the American, fair or not. However, that is poised to change with the top three AAC teams leaving to join the Big 12. Suddenly, the MWC has a chance to cement itself as the top mid-major conference. While the AAC won’t go down without a fight, and the Sun Belt seems to have handled their own realignment battles extremely well, the MWC has the strongest teams from top to bottom.
The next few years will be crucial to this endeavor. There is no magic formula for how to improve the conference, but a few things are clear. Doing everything they can to keep teams from leaving, finding a way to nail a new media deal, and overall cementing themselves as the top mid-major conference appears to be the chief objectives.