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Sports >  Gonzaga athletics

Blanchette: WCC finds Pacific a useful piece

Does the West Coast Conference need to work on its expansion encores?

The Church League made an outlandish splash in its first growth spurt in 30 years: Brigham Young. Even post-Jimmermania, the Y’s global mission, outsized student body, vast resources and never-on-Sunday policy altered the face of the predominantly Catholic WCC when it signed on 19 months ago and now … Pacific?


Where’s the exotic past? The Tigers were one of the original founding partners of the league in the 1950s.

Where’s the prestige? They’ve been idling in a one-bid co-op for four decades now.

Where’s the sexy destination? They’re from, well, Stockton. That’s almost Spokane-ish.

Where’s the grand plan? Was this really done for any other reason than the sudden yearning, in the wake of BYU’s first year of membership, to get back to a round number for basketball scheduling?

That’s a very practical concern, of course, and no trifle. No more odd Monday games. No more home Thursday, away Saturday. The return to travel partners and a standardized schedule will be welcomed by coaches, players and ticket buyers. Also the schools’ bean counters, and any academic advisors who have to help their charges fence missed class time.

But let’s also accept that without that driver, this vehicle probably doesn’t get in gear.

“When we brought BYU in,” noted Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth, “the first thing I said was, ‘We’ve got to start thinking about 10 (teams), because I guarantee none of us are going to like nine.’ “

And in Pacific, they got a like-minded 10th. Only private schools are invited to the WCC, of course, and Pacific remains so, though its financial association with the Methodist church ended in 1969. It is Gonzaga-sized, and shares similar values – and will no longer be a private island in the state-school mashup that is the Big West Conference.

“It was hard to describe and define our recruiting niche,” noted athletic director Ted Leland. “We’ve been kind of schizophrenic about our marketing mission.”

Which has been the case ever since Pacific joined the Big West’s precursor for football pursuits and left the WCC in 1971. By 1995, football could no longer be sustained, and a return to the Church League seemed natural.

“People in our city and on our campus have been talking about it for 20 years,” Leland allowed.

Echoed Roth, “I go back to my first (athletic directors) meeting 15 years ago. There was discussion then.”

Which further begs the why-them-why-now questions. All the things that made Pacific, Pacific were in place then. The only change was the WCC’s logistical need.

Roth and commissioner Jamie Zaninovich insisted the league was happy and healthy as an eight-team commune when BYU’s availability became a game-changer. Expansion was suddenly opportunity, and a little urgent. Round two was not about urgency, but convenience – and Wednesday’s confetti was unlikely had BYU never joined.

Think of it this way: Is Pacific a game Gonzaga would consider scheduling home-and-away beyond a league contract? Would BYU?

This is not to suggest the Tigers are without basketball pedigree. To the contrary, from 2004-06 they made three straight NCAA appearances, twice reaching the second round. Before leaving, they were the scourge of the WCC under the late Dick Edwards and the snug old Civic Auditorium was one of college basketball’s most notorious pits.

“In our community, that’s what people remember – the days with USF, Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara,” Leland said. “They don’t associate with Northridge and Santa Barbara.”

But in almost the same breath, Leland cautions that old memories aren’t going to be good enough in the new circumstances. In 15 years at Stanford, Leland turned the Cardinal athletic program into a national model before returning to his alma mater as a vice president. Now he’s been drafted to revive athletics.

The Tigers just finished their worst season in 24 years. Attendance averaged just 2,091. Their RPI was a grim 289. Even if you look at Pacific’s five-year RPI average – 175 – it doesn’t seem as if it helps the league profile.

Which sounds eerily like the arguments that mitigated against Seattle University being asked to be the even-number team back when BYU was admitted. Those grumblings are already being heard here again – though as Roth pointed out, “I don’t believe that question is going to be asked outside the Northwest.”

Gonzaga eats a lot of uninformed public grief over SU’s unrequited affair with the WCC – of which it, too, was once a member. The fact is, the two are sister schools in the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus and as such, Roth said, “are tied at the hip. Gonzaga will always support Seattle U., and always has.

“That said, this isn’t a Gonzaga decision. This is a league decision. And Pacific was the piece the league wanted to bring in.”

Not a conversation piece like BYU. Just a useful one.

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