Utah State University President Stan Albrecht gleefully wrote in an Aug. 17 e-mail that Boise State University President Bob Kustra's "world is crumbling around him and he is desperate."
"All signatures are in place. I don't think either John or Milt has $5 million to buy their way out," said Albrecht, referring to Fresno State president John Welty and University of Nevada president Milt Glick, whose schools faced a $5 million penalty for agreeing to move to the Mountain West Conference from the Western Athletic Conference.
But a day later, Albrecht's world and perhaps the WAC as a whole had disintegrated. In the span of roughly 24 hours last week, WAC officials and presidents soared and sank from glee to despair, watching their plan to add all of Brigham Young University's sports teams except football fall apart.
Known as "The Project," the plan that Albrecht masterminded with WAC Commissioner Karl Benson, BYU President Cecil Samuelson and Welty would also have guaranteed football games against BYU always a big draw for the WAC's top teams. But it came crashing down on Aug. 18, leaving Benson to lament in an e-mail to remaining WAC presidents, "this has been a very emotional day for me both on the professional and personal side."
Documents and e-mail correspondence between the parties, obtained by The Tribune from USU through an open records request, show how close the plan came to being finalized; how MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson's last-minute wheeling and dealing scuttled it; how television sports giant ESPN was involved from the beginning; and how desperately USU wanted instate rival BYU to declare its independence in football and join its conference in everything else.
The e-mails also show that WAC and USU officials believe Thompson hastily invited Nevada and Fresno State as a pre-emptive strike to weaken the WAC within days of learning BYU was planning to leave.
Thompson said in a teleconference the night of Aug. 18 that the reason the MWC invited the two WAC schools that day was to strengthen the league's negotiating position with television partner Comcast. He did not mention that it had anything to do with BYU's plans.
Thompson declined through an MWC spokesman to comment Thursday night.
The trail of messages also makes clear that Fresno president Welty was actively involved in the agreement's planning, only to turn his back on his WAC companions hours later when the MWC invitation came.
The Project in the talking stages for weeks began to solidify Aug. 13. Benson tells Welty in an e-mail that he has talked with Burke Magnus, ESPN director of collegiate sports programs, but that ESPN was not willing to renegotiate its agreement with the WAC "until after the BYU deal gets done."
A subsequent e-mail from Benson to Nevada's Glick and USU's Albrecht details how the WAC will provide BYU with football games against member schools. The parties then agreed to an 11 a.m. MDT conference call to finalize it.
"This is a very critical and exciting time for the WAC," Benson wrote to the WAC members, reminding them they will be signing a 5-year, binding agreement with a $5 million buyout clause. The resolution obtained by The Tribune earlier this week was e-mailed to the members.
Another Benson e-mail tells WAC members "I talked to BYU reps several times over the weekend and they are getting close to finalizing the deal with ESPN. … It appears BYU is prepared to go forward despite not getting the exact number they were hoping for. … Assuming they reach a deal today Pres. Samuelson will then call for a special meeting of the Church Council more than likely Wednesday to recommend the deal to go independent in football and to join the WAC in all other sports. It is expected that the [Board of Trustees] will approve the recommendation."
What's more, Benson describes how BYU was "working on their media plan" to make the official announcement and that it would come as soon as Aug. 18, or Monday "at the latest."
Another e-mail, sent the night of Aug. 13, reminds members that the vote was 7-0 earlier that day (Nevada did not vote) and that it was agreed that inquiries from the media were to be answered with a "no comment."
In weekend e-mails between Albrecht and USU athletic director Scott Barnes, Albrecht expresses excitement that the plan was unfolding perfectly.
An e-mail from Benson to WAC members on Aug. 16 tells them that MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson "has realized that the BYU issue is real" and that Thompson "is now mounting an effort to convince/persuade BYU to stay" in the MWC.
Even more happiness ensued Aug. 17, when Albrecht told his attorneys the signatures were in place and that the president of Boise State which had bolted the WAC for the MWC in June (beginning in 2011) was not going to like it.
About the same time the next day, however, the first sign came that The Project was collapsing. Nevada athletic director Cary Groth notified USU's Barnes that her school and Fresno had been invited to the MWC. It turned out to be Black Wednesday for Benson, Albrecht and BYU, as Nevada and Fresno accepted within hours of receiving invitations.
And the night ended with a note from Michael Kennedy, USU vice president for federal and state relations, to Albrecht as he watched Thompson's news conference announcing the two additions: "I'm watching the [Mountain West Television Network] and feeling sick to my stomach. Any silver lining?"
Albrecht's reply: "Unfortunately, no. Thompson hasn't returned my call. Not a good sign."
And it wasn't. The Project remains unfinished.
Reporters Brian Smith and Tony Jones contributed to this story.