I must admit that this whole conference expansion talk and speculation has me riveted. As a huge college sports fan and a Colorado native, the Buffs are one of the teams at the center of the talks so I've heard all about it and I've recently begun wondering what, if anything, it could possibly mean for Gonzaga. I've gone back and forth on whether I honestly think our athletic department will have to face such questions but it is worth considering what might come of the rumored Pac-16 (just sounds weird) and other super conferences that might be forming. This piece really has nothing to do with my personal opinion of the West Coast Conference and shouldn't be taken as an endorsement or criticism of the WCC. Rather, it is more or less investigating whether Gonzaga's current situation gives them the best chance at success if the dominoes do in fact fall and the conference structure changes drastically.
For many years Gonzaga fans have been speculating and many have been wishing that the Bulldogs could get the basketball program out of the conference and take it to a place like the Pac-10. Well, I think we can officially write that off as a legitimate possibility in our lifetime. The Pac-10 obviously has their sights set on the Big 12 South with the focus on bolstering their football footprint and bringing in some much needed revenue. The possibility of a sixteen team Pac-10 along with more teams in the Big Ten and SEC has a lot of non-BCS programs worried about where they fit in the larger picture of athletics. For Gonzaga, which has seen it's brand grow like a weed over the past decade, it is hard to imagine the athletic department taking a backseat while all this change happens. For that reason, it may not be so far-fetched to think that this conference expansion could impact GU.
Like I said before, the purpose of this piece is not to attack the WCC or put down any of its members. I believe our conference has tremendous growth potential and I think some of the leaders are in place to make this a more consistent and balanced league. The word that always comes up when talking about the WCC is commitment. How committed is the league and it's members to making this a solid conference for many years to come. Looking at schools like Saint Mary's, Portland, San Diego, and even Santa Clara, you can see some of the groundwork and results already. The question in such a small conference is whether or not the programs currently on the bottom are dedicated to improving their position athletically. If they aren't, and Gonzaga feels like the conference is moving in the wrong direction, there is no way you can blame them for exploring other options. The obvious downfall is losing out on the history that has been made in the conference but just imagine if GU was in the same conference as Boise State, Wyoming, Utah, and BYU. Those could all be budding rivalries and I feel like a Boise State/GU rivalry would be outstanding. I consider myself to be very schooled on where Gonzaga came from but my biggest pet peeve is the lack or any true natural conference rivals. This could be taken care of if the Mountain West decides to expand and welcome Gonzaga.
The conference that I am watching closely during this process is the Mountain West. Having lived in the Rocky Mountain region for my whole life save the four years I primarily lived in Spokane, I know how strong the MWC is athletically. Programs such as BYU, Utah, UNLV, TCU, New Mexico, and San Diego State are all very strong at this point. BYU is very successful in both football and basketball, Utah is similar, UNLV is a budding basketball program, TCU's success on the gridiron and diamond is well documented and New Mexico has a top-flight basketball coach and a program and is on the rise. Even when you go down the line and look at Air Force, Wyoming, and Colorado State, those are all programs that have won recently and have done well in athletics. I am also very intrigued with how they have chosen to approach this expansion process. Rather than jump on it early and invite a Boise State program that was basically throwing itself at the mercy of the conference, they have elected to wait and see how the Pac-10 and Big Ten shape up. What this tells me is that it is very likely they are going to make a bigger splash than it was originally expected and their nine-team league may see a major spike.
Waiting in the wings for a conference if some of the rumored expansion happens could be Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor/Colorado, and Iowa State. These are all very solid programs and the MWC is a pretty likely destination for many of them. Standing in Gonzaga's way is obviously the lack of a football program but don't discount the Mountain West making the big push for the Bulldogs just because the brand has become so large. Being outside of Spokane for such a long time has really given me the indication that the Gonzaga name is much more prevalent then I could have imagined. What would need to happen is for the Mountain West to find another basketball only school to balance out the numbers assuming their are two divisions in the conference. This could be a Saint Mary's or a Seattle U or any other program along the West Coast.
This kind of playful discussion could turn serious if the Mountain West does decide to pursue drastic expansion in response to the Pac-10 and Big Ten's growth. Having two power conferences in your region and being on the outside looking in is not going to be pretty if you are Gonzaga. It is one thing to be an independent and be able to dictate a bulk of your schedule but I worry about these super-conferences shying away from scheduling the Zags when they already will be facing 8-10 top tier programs year in year out. This also doesn't address the revenue concerns linked with television deals and other marketing that Gonzaga might miss out on if it winds up sitting on the sidelines. I doubt ESPN gives the WCC a second look if there is a Mountain West Conference featuring Kansas, Kansas State, UNLV, etc etc and a Pac-16 with the mighty Texas Longhorns sitting out there.
While there is no doubt this process will probably be slow moving, it is important to note that there is an awful lot at stake when you consider how much the athletic department means to Gonzaga University. Being there during some of the best years of the program and watching the campus grow with the team, it has been pretty obvious that the basketball program has been wildly important to the growth of GU. I have confidence that the growth will continue to be fostered and the upcoming decisions made by schools like Nebraska, Missouri, Notre Dame, and those involved in the Pac-10 discussions might have a serious affect on where we see Gonzaga in future years.