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Blanchette: Other WCC schools must make effort beyond cashing Gonzaga’s checks

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has called for the rest of the West Coast Conference to step it up. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has called for the rest of the West Coast Conference to step it up. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s the spring of the Great Churn in the West Coast Conference – 40 percent of the schools turning over their basketball coaches. So let’s see where everyone sits now that the music has stopped:

Santa Clara made an extraordinarily level-headed move in landing Herb Sendek, late of Arizona State but who’s taken three different schools to the NCAA tournament. Sendek isn’t Mr. Excitement – and that can show in his teams, too – but there’s coaching substance there. Not unlike what the Broncos had and decided to cast away nine years ago to hire a rookie.

Speaking of churn, Rex Walters’ player-go-round days at San Francisco are at an end, and the Dons, too, passed on a show pony (Steve Lavin) in favor of a dray horse. Randy Bennett protégé Kyle Smith managed to make Columbia basketball relevant – three winning seasons in six years, as many as the Lions had in the previous 29.

And Pacific and Portland hired a couple of Trail Blazers alums. Because that’s worked so well before (see Clyde Drexler, Michael Holton, Larry Steele).

No other league fired as many coaches as the WCC did this spring, and never has the conference experienced so much turnover in a single year. So maybe Mark Few’s scolding found its target.

After all, isn’t changing coaches all you have to do show you mean business?

By Monday night, the April Afterthought part of March Madness will be behind us. But back when it was all getting started – Selection Sunday – Gonzaga’s head coach took stock of his league getting only one team into the bracket (his own, with the automatic bid) and teed one up.

“Our league needs to really step back and take notice,” he said. “It’s time for some of these other institutions to start picking it up. They’re really dragging the top three down.”

The teeth-gnashing down-league could be heard all the way up in Spokane – coming from both the educrats at WCC member schools, and from fans who somehow missed the point that Few was actually advocating for, you know, better basketball for everyone. That he put a finer point on it – the notion of revisiting how NCAA revenue gets distributed within the league – was surely the tsetse fly in everybody’s stew.

But as Gonzaga’s dominance drags on toward two decades, it’s certainly time for some reflection on that score.

The NCAA practices high-dollar socialism to share the mad money CBS and Turner pay for this month-long miniseries. The dough is passed along in units, one for each game a team plays through the national semifinals.

One of those units this year is worth nearly $1.6 million, paid out over six years. And it’s not paid to schools but to conferences, which tend to divvy it up equally.

The WCC’s automatic bid gets it one unit no matter what. Anything beyond that must be earned. And it’s no surprise that the Zags are the biggest earners – 24 additional units since 1999, twice as many as the rest of the members combined. The folks at Bloomberg News did some calculating that’s even more stark. From 1991-2015, Gonzaga earned $34.3 million for the WCC, compared to about $23 million from the other lodge brothers.

In those years, for example, Portland’s one-unit contribution was a mere $500,000, but the Pilots were allotted the same $6.82 million payout the Zags received. But it’s really worse than that, since that lone unit is from the auto bid that has to go to someone.

The image of a cruise ship stowaway comes to mind.

There are many justifications for the all-for-one, one-for-all approach. And just because Gonzaga has opted to invest – and heavily – in basketball doesn’t mean it’s the right thing for, say, San Diego. But it remains that the communal kumbaya has made it comfortable for some members to give it just a token try, and in a year when it should have been easier to get teams into the NCAA tournament, bad basketball in the WCC – as reflected in metrics used by the selection committee to determine worth – helped keep a couple of teams out.

It was revealing of the league mindset that a conversation with a former administrator during this tournament produced opinions that the recent firings wouldn’t help “short term” and that even a Gonzaga-level investment at a California school wouldn’t result in a basketball breakthrough.

So, hey, why bother?

But maybe there’s a small hardening of resolve. Both Santa Clara and USF suggested at the announcement of their hires that increased resources will be devoted to basketball beyond the new coach’s salary. Let’s hope any such commitment isn’t accompanied by impatience. The new guys deserve the same time to build that Walters and Kerry Keating and Eric Reveno received.

And remember – somebody has to finish last. It just doesn’t have to be dead last.

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