Sports

Blanchette: Greeted with missionary zeal

In case you never thought you’d see it, a Catholic family just invited a door-belling Mormon missionary into their home.

Such is the influence of college athletics.

Consider this just the first of the jokes, ironies and wonders that will attend the marriage of Brigham Young University and the West Coast Conference, confirmed by both parties on Tuesday as the latest – but certainly not the last – quake to rearrange the intercollegiate furniture.

Also confirmed:

• Latter-Day U. is no longer just a latent Notre Dame wannabe, but an actualized one with its declaration of football independence.

• Any notion that the WCC remains the scared-of-its-shadow CYO league of yore is severely misplaced.

Indeed, remember all the huzzahs Pacific-10 Conference commissioner Larry Scott received for his bold, if mostly unrequited, raid on the Big 12 earlier this summer? Well, what WCC wrangler Jamie Zaninovich – like Scott, a relative newbie – pulled off over the past week is something of a to-scale replica, only without the anti-climax.

Also, it’s good to remember this:

“We’re talking about a basketball conference,” said Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth, “but it still comes back to football.”

Meaning this entire arrangement – energizing as it is for Gonzaga and the WCC membership and a safe haven for BYU – doesn’t happen if the Cougars hadn’t lost state-mate Utah to the Pac-10 and weren’t so royally honked at the Mountain West Conference over a football television package they found limiting and unyielding.

To retrace the breadcrumbs: BYU a week ago was poised to leave the MWC and hook up with the Western Athletic Conference for its other sports and a scheduling “arrangement” with some of that league’s football programs. Then the Mountain West repelled that coup by annexing Nevada and Fresno State from the WAC. Along came Zaninovich with his come-hither to the Cougars, who felt they were too far down the road of independence to turn back – and saw a much better basketball destination than the weakened WAC.

And to recap the scoring:

Bad for the Mountain West. Another Rocky Balboa body blow for the WAC, which is one more from a KO. And still a risk for BYU – on its own without the BCS deal that Notre Dame enjoys. But great for the WCC.

“It makes sense competitively – they’ll come in and challenge in all of our sports and that’s exactly what you want when you add a conference member,” said Roth. “You’re not just looking for a ‘participant.’ ”

Fact is, the Cougars may kill the WCC in a few sports, but of course the WCC’s money game is men’s basketball and there the league is adding an instant challenger to Gonzaga’s decade-plus dominance – beyond the inroads that Saint Mary’s has made.

The Cougars have been to 25 NCAA tournaments, and over the last four years have an average Ratings Percentage Index ranking of 24. While the WCC is no stranger to receiving multiple NCAA bids, it now stands to get them regularly. Moreover, there stands to be an upgrade to the league’s TV deal with ESPN – though Roth cautioned that “I don’t want people thinking it’s a $2-point-whatever billion SEC deal. Basketball money is not football money.”

Apprehensions?

“None whatsoever,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I’m happy to add somebody that’s competitive on a national level. That’s going to enhance the profile of the conference.

“We were going to fight any situation where you brought in a sub-150 RPI level program. That doesn’t help you.”

That’s a hint about the climate for more WCC expansion. Naturally, basketball scheduling is easier with 10 teams than nine. But at the moment, none of the private, faith-based schools in the West – which is the Catholic-heavy WCC’s main condition for membership – can bring a pedigree remotely like that of BYU.

“We don’t have any additional plans to expand,” said Roth. “That said, a month ago, we didn’t have plans to expand. But we didn’t change – the landscape changed.”

And when it did, the WCC didn’t clutch up. Even presented with an abnormality like BYU – its 35,000 enrollment is four times as large as any other WCC school – it expanded for the first time in more than 30 years.

“I can attribute that to a change in leadership at the commissioner’s level,” Roth said, “and some at the presidential level. At some schools, the attitude is different than in the past. We can’t just say we’re going to do things the same way – you’re not getting better that way. You can’t be satisfied. This is an historic event, for sure. Our conference makeup in terms of not changing was the second longest behind the Ivy. We were very comfortable as a conference.”

But sometimes opportunity knocks. This time, it was wearing a white shirt and a tie.



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