When Jamie Zaninovich assumed the role of West Coast Conference Commissioner in 2008 he did so with the laudable goal of making the league the strongest non-BCS conference in the country. On Wednesday, in a move that was apparently months in the making, he worked toward that goal by adding the University of the Pacific to the WCC, effective in the 2013-14 season.
Re-admitting one of the WCC’s charter members brings a 7,000-member school (fourth smallest in league) a 6,150-seat gym (second largest), and a modest basketball tradition to the conference. Pacific will conveniently function as a fourth Bay Area-school, and the tenth total team, resulting in an 18-game league schedule. Several programs have noted that this year’s nine-team conference scheduling experiment, which deviated some from the traditional travel-partner format of two successive home or away games played on Thursdays and Saturdays, put an extra burden on the logistics of travel.
Beyond logistics, the move extracted a wide range of opinions Wednesday. Some enthusiastically cheered the addition of a sizable infrastructure, an enthusiastic fan base, and a tenth team’s facilitation of the erstwhile travel-partner arrangement. Several others with Zaninovich’s well-publicized goal in mind, puzzled at the addition of a Big West School that finished somewhere in the low 200s of Division I basketball last season, and from the emphasis on a market three other WCC schools already call home, criticized the move as unnecessary.
Pacific’s inclusion prompts two meta-level questions: What, specifically, is the league’s endgame? And will BYU stay in the league or leave, as many have speculated, for more lucrative pastures?
The landscape of conference re-alignment is incredibly transitory. Schools are with a conference one day, and at the slightest whiff of instability, leave the next. Conferences can collapse like card tables. Thus, conferences can behave erratically. The Big East can add West Virginia, but it can also head further west and flirt with Texas Christian. And then it can drop TCU and go way out of bounds and add San Diego State and Boise State, despite those schools having zero geographic relevance to the Big East’s territorial map. Some of those admissions can be football-only admissions, while others are full.
The WCC, for many reasons, cannot behave this way. There are boundaries.
The most notable reason is that, barring some major shift in its underlying principles, the league only admits private, religiously-minded institutions. Also, despite the league’s recent expansion into the Mountain time zone with the addition of Brigham Young, the titular descriptor ‘West Coast’ actually holds literal value. Furthermore, there is no ‘football-only’ option in the WCC, as there is no football at all in the WCC.
Achieving Zaninovich’s goal while working within these constraints limits the WCC’s options. In other words, BYU’s don’t grow on trees.
In an interview with the Spokesman-Review on Wednesday, Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said the conference’s expansion committee set its sights some years ago on four possible universities it could admit based on the league’s self-defined constraints, and not necessarily on those programs’ athletic success. Those four programs were BYU, Pacific, Denver and Seattle.
BYU, the most athletically successful of any of those programs, joined first. At the time the Cougars were admitted into the league, the parameters of the WCC’s expansion weren’t as clearly defined in the public discourse. The success of Pacific’s addition to the league depends on how it fits within the WCC’s overall plan, which is clearer, but still murky.
If Pacific is a stepping-stone on the way to developing a 12-team league that embraces all geographically-possible religious Division I institutions, then this move certainly fits within that plan. The unfortunate reality of fulfilling that plan – as neat as it would be to consolidate all similarly-minded institutions into a large, even number, and have two six-team divisions – is that doing so makes the WCC a larger league, not a better one. It would effectually comprise a slightly worse version of the Pac 12 at a time when no one in the country likes the actual version of the Pac 12.
A Pacific team at the height of its historical competitiveness, such as the ones that made the NCAA Tournament in the mid-2000s, would be competitive in the WCC. Those teams, though, are distant echoes. The current squad is much worse, and all of it, outside of little-used senior guard Marvin Cotton, and two low-impact transfer candidates, returns next year. The best Zaninovich can reasonably hope for is that the remaining schools the committee is considering will blend in to the WCC, meaning they won’t dazzle, but they’ll compete and further reinforce the level of play that already exists. But adding Pacific in 2013-14 will quite possibly weaken the level of play that already exists, and lower the conference’s average statistical value-per-team.
Denver and Seattle have, between them, 13 years of modern division I basketball existence, much less success. They hold one NIT appearance, and no NCAA tournament experience, between them. It would unquestionably be in their best interests to join the WCC, a league with much better television exposure, revenue, and basketball success than their nascent home, the Western Athletic Conference. It is extremely unlikely, however, that these remaining two schools on the WCC’s “poach” list have been asked to join.
Aside from Pacific winning basketball games, the dream scenario for the WCC is that the newly aligned WAC does not implode anytime soon (as critics fear it will), and that that stability gives Denver and Seattle time to consistently perform at the top of the conference. Whether or not that occurs is impossible to predict, but given the talent pools and resources at both schools, it appears unlikely.
On the other hand, if the WCC wants to move forward with 10 teams, then it must keep BYU, a task, I’m told by several who are close to BYU, is nearly impossible. The WCC must hold on to BYU because it is the cornerstone of its expansion efforts. It has a support network and fan draw of roughly the other eight WCC schools combined. In basketball, the WCC’s de facto football, BYU is a consistently top 40 program. The remaining pool doesn’t boast a consistently top-140 program.
If BYU left a nine team WCC that never admitted Pacific, everything would have gone back to the way it was. Instead of being the eleventh best basketball conference in the country – what it was in 2011-12 and what is was in years prior to BYU joining – perhaps it would drift to twelfth. The league certainly would not improve, but it would venture nowhere near WAC, Big Sky or Big West territory.
But BYU can only leave a 10-team conference now. If it does, a big mess would ensue. Zaninovich would lose the third-brightest jewel in his crown and essentially replace it with a bottom-half team. This would not just deplete the WCC’s average statistical value per-team, but most likely will make it worse than pre-BYU levels. The conference would also become nine teams again, resulting in the same logistical complications several of the programs complained to Zaninovich about this year.
That, in turn, would most likely lead to the WCC choosing to add a tenth school to create an even number yet again. But what school? Clearly, neither Denver nor Seattle blows the WCC away, or else it would have asked them out already. If BYU left and then the WCC added either school as a new tenth team, then it would have traded out its third best team for not one, but two bottom-half projected programs. The one-move upward trajectory the WCC charted between 2008 and 2012, not to mention Zaninovich’s chutzpah, would abruptly evaporate. The conference would then be further away from being the best non-BCS conference than it is now.
When he won over BYU, Jamie Zaninovich played his best card first. It was a masterstroke, and it was bold -- although probably not as bold as walking unflinchingly down a path of expansion options that are unglamorous, constricted and pre-ordained.
Will Green writes about West Coast college hoops and tweets regularly about clam chowder at @Zagacious.