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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Thomason not going out like a Scrooge

So it’s not the ghosts ganging up on old Eb.

But the past and future of West Coast Conference basketball make an unusual appearance at Gonzaga University tonight, and it’s still a month before the present.

Did we say past?

Bob Thomason goes back so far that the league was actually known as the West Coast Athletic Conference, road trips included stops in Reno, Las Vegas and Santa Barbara, and Gonzaga might as well have been a foreign country and not the flagship program.

Now he’s in his 25th and farewell year as coach at Pacific, his adieu just in time to miss any nostalgic pull that might accompany the Tigers’ re-entry into the WCC next season.

And he’s very much OK with that.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you know when it’s the right time to go, and it’s the right time.”

So he’ll get a small taste of what he’ll miss next year when the Tigers take on Gonzaga at 5 p.m., with a chance to play WCC giant-killer for the second time in nine days.

The insane ditching and coupling that’s consumed college athletics in the past five years managed to trickle down to even a no-football zone like the WCC, only in a more measured, conservative fashion. Which makes sense, given the old church league’s traditional sensibilities.

It landed big fish Brigham Young with a splash a couple years ago, the religious-school connection carrying the day when that campus’ sheer size and global scope might have argued against it. And after a season of trying to finesse nine-team scheduling, it quite predictably reached out to old friend Pacific, which bailed on the league back when it had football to feed in 1971.

That happened to be the year Thomason graduated, an all-conference guard for the late Dick Edwards, one of college basketball’s underappreciated godfathers. His unyielding approach, the Tigers’ blue-collar players and the haunted house that was old Stockton Civic Auditorium made Pacific one of the toughest outs in the West.

The Tigers topped the WCAC standings four times in their last six years in the league, when future NBA thumpers like Dennis Awtrey, John Gianelli and Darnell Hillman banged underneath.

“It was a great league then, so tough,” Thomason remembered, “and it’s a great league now. I’ve been trying to get us back in that league for 25 years.”

Pacific had fallen through basketball’s trapdoor by the time Thomason returned as head coach in 1988, and it took him nearly a decade to restore it to any prominence. There have been six Big West titles and four NCAA trips since, though the Tigers are coming off their worst season since Thomason’s first.

They are also putting that in the rear-view mirror, by the looks of wins over Xavier and Saint Mary’s last week before falling to Cal in the title game of the DirecTV Classic in Anaheim.

“You earn what you get in this business,” Thomason said, “and we didn’t quite earn enough. But we’re getting better.”

Old WCAC rivals like the Gaels, Santa Clara and San Francisco have been regulars on the Pacific schedule over the years. The Gonzaga game is more of a test drive for next year and “getting our guys used to playing in front of this crowd,” Thomason said.

Even if they’ll be playing for someone else.

Pacific’s indifferent results of the last few years and athletic director Ted Leland’s decision not to extend his contract last year suggested Thomason was being nudged toward the door – something he’s insisted was not the case. He is campaigning for top assistant Ron Verlin – twin brother of Idaho coach Don Verlin – to get a promotion, but whoever inherits the job won’t be looking at the kind of rebuild Thomason faced.

“Twenty-five years had a nice ring to it,” Thomason said, “but I always wanted to leave a team that was better than the one I had. I feel very good. I have no anxiety about this, no envy, no wishing it was happening another way.”

No-fault divorce has become college hoops’ true upset – that and Thomson’s kind of longevity. Only seven current coaches have longer tenures at their schools.

But he also knows if he stayed, he’d be lobbying for more change.

“They’re going to have upgrade to compete in this league,” Thomason said. “The operating budget, guarantee money, number of staff members. The other thing is improving their knowledge of what it takes to be big-time in athletics.

“I’m not saying you have to do what Gonzaga does. But you have to do it at a level that gives you a chance to be successful. If they do that – and they say they want to – it’s going to be fun to watch. Pacific can be a special place.”

As one of the ghosts of Pacific’s basketball past, he knows it first-hand.