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Twelve years ago, the Western Athletic Conference was on life support.

Utah and BYU had left the league, along with six other schools, to form the Mountain West Conference. The WAC looked like it was done as a player in big-league college sports, and commissioner Karl Benson lay almost helpless in a dark room recovering from emergency eye surgery.

But Benson, and the WAC, survived.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the conference is once again struggling to stay intact — and stay relevant. Boise State has left, and Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii will soon depart. Benson, in the midst of what he calls "the biggest challenge" of his career, is working furiously once again to keep the WAC — whose current members will soon be reduced to Utah State, San Jose State, Idaho, New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech — together.

"Karl's job has been very, very tough," said Fresno State's football coach, Pat Hill. "But he's always kept the conference alive."

And that continues to be the plan. Now in his 17th year as the WAC commissioner, Benson, 59, says he's not going anywhere. Does he wonder where his conference would be today if the Mountain West schools hadn't broken away on their own? Yes. Does he wish the near-deal to bring BYU into the WAC for all sports except for football had reached fruition? Certainly. But he also believes the WAC will be heard from again.

"This is without question a new challenge," Benson said. "It's bigger than the [1999] breakup. I believe that the WAC is going to prove the naysayers wrong, despite the odds."

Not many people in college athletics have had as difficult a year as Benson did in 2010.

For the second time in a decade, he saw his league almost disintegrate. Last year, BYU was all set to leave the Mountain West Conference and join the WAC in all sports but football, allowing the Cougars to pursue football independence. With the move, Benson hoped to entice Boise State to rethink its pending move to the MWC. And maybe, just maybe, put the WAC into a position to become a power conference.

But Boise State never reconsidered. And Fresno State and Nevada turned their backs on the deal and will now join the Mountain West following the 2011 season. Hawaii quickly followed.

Now, it is Benson who is left to pick up the pieces with six football-playing schools seen mostly as afterthoughts in past years. Watching his conference broken in half in 1999 was difficult for Benson to take. The aftermath of the BYU debacle ­— the Cougars wound up migrating to the West Coast Conference — was devastating.

"The results of the project is easily the most disappointing and discouraging outcome of my career," Benson said. "We were on the verge of doing something that would've not only stabilized the WAC, but something that could have allowed the WAC to return to be the dominant "other" conference in the west outside of the Pac-12. This is easily the biggest challenge of my career."

And yet, there's reason for optimism. If Benson has shown nothing else in his tenure, it has been the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Most thought the 1999 breakup of the WAC would be a death-knell for the conference. And it was a depressing time for Benson, who at the time was in a hospital bed following retina surgery and not able to react in the manner he wanted to when the eight schools left the league.

But Benson recovered and so did the WAC. The conference added Nevada in 2000, with Boise State and Louisiana Tech following in 2001. The Broncos turned themselves into a national football program, a power school that delivered the historic 43-42 overtime win over mighty Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.

Nevada did the same thing in basketball, becoming a fixture in the NCAA Tournament, and developing a pipeline to the NBA.

Both schools, in effect, saved Benson's league, and in large measure, his reputation. The question now is, can he pull it off for a second time?

"When we added those schools, nobody could foresee Boise State playing in a BCS Bowl," Benson said. "I remember their first conference home game. There were about 20,000 people there. Now, look how far they've come. It was just a matter of providing them the opportunity to get better. I've had success along with disappointment. I've seen my schools go to Final Fours and BCS bowl games."

In his second attempt to rebuild the WAC, the conference has added Texas-San Antonio and Texas State as full members and Denver as a nonfootball member. Those schools will officially join the conference in 2012, and the league could add another member when the WAC board of directors meets Monday in Park City, with Utah Valley University and Seattle both prime candidates as non-football schools.

This time, Benson's recruiting pitch has been simple: Come join our conference and get better as a program. Become the next Boise State or the next Nevada.

In essence, he's nearly starting from scratch again, fully aware that Utah State has clamored to join the Mountain West and that Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State have considered a move to the Sun Belt Conference.

"This isn't the first time that Karl's experienced conference reshuffling," said Rob Spear, Idaho's athletics director. "He's shown that he's resilient and he's shown time after time the ability to rebuild the conference to where it's one of the top leagues in the country. He received way too much criticism for the results of the project. People need to understand the direction that the WAC was taking."

It's no coincidence that Benson's wagons are hitched locally. Utah and BYU fans know a lot about Benson since they were the centerpiece schools in the 16-team WAC of the late 1990s.

Now? It's Utah State. In basketball, the Aggies have replaced Nevada as the premier school in the conference with four consecutive titles and three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. And with the talent that coach Stew Morrill has recruited to Logan, the Aggies appear poised for a long run.

USU also has improved its facilities over the years and the football program, once moribund, has shown signs of life under Gary Andersen.

"It's been an arduous and difficult journey for the WAC," Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes said. "When you've been through what we have, you need a leader who's battle-tested, and that's Karl Benson. The leadership strategy is there. He's not going to sit and wait for things to happen."

tjones@sltrib.comTwitter: @tonyaggieville —

Karl Benson

• Became the Western Athletic Conference commissioner in 1994.

• Was the Mid-America Conference commissioner before that.

• Added Boise State and Nevada when the Mountain West formed.

• Has added Texas-San Antonio and Texas State as football-playing schools.