If you dialed up last weekend’s Saint Mary’s-Brigham Young basketball game to gauge what Gonzaga’s up against in the West Coast Conference’s ménage of the Id, Ego and Super-ego – and you may assign those roles yourself – perhaps you noticed that things were a little, well, uncollegial.
Stuff got thrown.
The new kids on the block were getting it pretty good from the Gaels, and some among the 22,000-odd Youngsters decided their Cougars were getting it pretty good from the zebras, too. So wadded paper and rally towels began sailing onto the court – resulting in a technical foul – and at game’s end there was a shower of debris.
So WCC commissioner Jamie Zaninovich put in a call to a chagrined Tom Holmoe, BYU’s athletic director, and the message was succinct:
Why didn’t it stop, and what are you going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?
“The thing I’ve found about this league,” Holmoe said, “is that they don’t pay lip service to things that really matter. And it’s a privilege, really, to be part of a group that stands for something.”
Just what that was invited some new interpretations 18 months ago, when the WCC’s membership of small and mostly Catholic schools took on a new boarder – a 35,000-student Mormon monolith with a worldwide mission.
And tonight it’s Gonzaga turn to experience firsthand this curious marriage of church and sweat.
In their short tenure, the Cougars have been pretty much what the WCC counted on competitively: good, but not too good. They’re a top 50 RPI program again even with the marquee talents of Jimmer Fredette gone, but they’ve also stumbled already at home against the Gaels and Loyola Marymount.
But it remains undeniable that BYU is in this particular basketball league for a non-hoops reason – its bold leap to football independence.
That course – and just how long the Cougars plan to pursue it – tends to color every discussion about the legs of their WCC relationship and buttresses a notion, perhaps unfair, that the old eight members are sort of tiptoeing around the new one.
Holmoe doesn’t accept that.
“The WCC stands alone,” he insisted. “What they represent is what they’ve earned over the years. They didn’t need BYU to make it a great conference. Hopefully, we can enhance it and do our part to make it stronger.”
Nonetheless, just months after the jump, the Cougars played footsy with the Big 12 before that league declined to issue an invitation – instead TCU set the record for shortest conference affiliation. Even more serious talks were held later with the Big East. In the end, no accord was reached for largely the same reason BYU felt it had to leave its longtime home in the Mountain West: television.
Or, as Holmoe put it, “Access for our fans and exposure for our teams.”
Instead of a limiting TV deal with the MWC, the Cougars have an eight-year gig on ESPN worth up to $2 million a game – and the rights to broadcast their home games on their own BYUtv cable channel, which reaches 50 million U.S. homes.
But what the Cougars don’t have is a conference to win, or BCS access, or even much of a schedule – though Holmoe maintained by 2013 it will be as difficult as any in school history. In that light, they have traded relevance for reach. It’s also possible that in their zeal to exercise such control over their TV spoils they have made themselves a reputation as difficult partners if ever the established power leagues – like the Big 12 and Big East – evolve into the superconferences many anticipate.
“Going independent was the right thing to do when we did it, and it wasn’t like we woke up one day and said, ‘Let’s go independent,’” Holmoe said. “You have to do what’s best for your school.”
And in the long term, what is that?
“I don’t think anyone can chart a long-term course,” he said. “Even the strong, traditional powers are uncertain and if they are, we are, too. And as I talk to WCC leadership, their eyes are open to see what the landscape is, what’s best for the conference.”
For the Cougars and their fans, the changeover has been dramatic – even traumatic – in basketball as well as football. BYU severed relationships with schools such as Wyoming and Colorado State dating back to the old Mountain States Athletic Conference in the 1920s. The rivalry with Utah is now a less-electric nonconference game. The MWC – with the likes of UNLV, San Diego State and New Mexico – remains a better league with bigger, packed houses.
“But the one eye-opening thing for our fans and students is that the WCC is a really good conference,” Holmoe said. “The top teams in every sport are really good. It’s been kind of humbling, really, but I like it.
“You’ve got to earn your stripes in this conference.”