The Mountain West Conference is about to be scouring the transfer portal.
Craig Thompson, the only person to ever serve as commissioner for the Mountain West Conference, announced Wednesday he will be step down at the end of December — ending a 24-year run overseeing the mid-major league from start up to present day.
And despite his being the focus of criticism at various times from media, fans and schools, the 66-year-old Thompson, who is the longest tenured Football Bowl Subdivision commissioner, is leaving his post with what seems to be universal appreciation from the league’s 12 member schools.
“He helped this league not just through the iterations of many of the realignments (in the conference and around college athletics) that have happened that helped this league grow, but he also helped us be the best Group of Five conference consistently,” UNM Athletic Director Eddie Nuñez told the Journal on Wednesday.
“For someone who has had that vision and was able to execute it, it’s a testament to him to be able to guide (the league) through all the presidents he’s had to deal with, all the ADs — those change regularly. And to be able to keep his vision on where he saw the league going with all that, I mean, that’s pretty impressive. He did a lot for this league. Every school in this conference should be very appreciative of what he has done to help this league be what it is today.”
Thompson has spent the past 35 years as a conference commissioner, first with the American South Conference from 1987-91, then the Sun Belt from 1991-98 and then taking on the startup Mountain West, which officially began operations in January 1999. It began competing in the fall of the 1999-2000 sports season, comprised of eight schools that defected from the Western Athletic Conference.
Through the years, the league born from the most radical form of conference realignment has navigated its way through a college sports landscape where realignment has become commonplace. The MWC has survived teams leaving and added several itself.
Among other appointments, Thompson helped oversee the current six-year, $270 million media rights deal for the league with CBS and Fox Sports that nets each full member roughly $4 million a year. He also was a two-time member of the NCAA basketball selection committee.
The MWC was the first to have its own television network — The Mtn. — which failed, but is now the norm of all major conferences. And Thompson has been regularly involved in pushing for more access for non-power conference football programs to postseason opportunities and revenue, from testifying before Congress in 2009 about the BCS to his recent involvement with the expansion to 12 teams of the College Football Playoff system.
“My one remaining priority was expansion of the College Football Playoff and viable access for the Mountain West,” Thompson said in a release by the conference. “I take considerable pride in my committed engagement to this effort over the past two-and-a-half decades and look forward to the finalization of those details in the coming months. …
“The time is now right for me to conclude my tenure and allow the Conference to continue its momentum under new leadership.”
Specific to UNM, Nuñez noted Thompson’s ability to help the Lobos salvage a season of any kind during the uniquely challenging 2020-21 sports season affected by COVID-19.
Safety restrictions imposed by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who had earlier in the summer of 2020 unsuccessfully petitioned the NCAA to stop all college sports due to COVID-19, prevented the Lobos from playing or even practicing sports in the state during the fall of 2020.
The Lobo football team relocated for the entire season to Las Vegas, Nevada, and the school’s men’s and women’s basketball teams lived in hotels and played entirely out of state short of one game in the Pit in March 2021 by the women’s team.
“The entire Mountain West Conference owes a debt of gratitude to Craig for his selfless service over the history of our conference,” UNM President Garnett Stokes, Chair of the Conference Board of Directors, said in a release from the league. “His fingerprints are on every accomplishment and every initiative we have undertaken, and he has positioned the Conference to continue to be among the nation’s elite.”
There was no comment from the league on a timeline to hire a replacement.
The league is once again facing a potentially critical realignment battle with several members being possible targets for the Pac-12 Conference, if that league survives expected impending raids itself from other Power 5 conferences.