SPOKANE — Snowflakes were just starting to fall in earnest as students hurriedly erected tents with the intent of camping out for a basketball game more than 24 hours away.
The overnight party was eventually called off over concerns about the snow and frigid temperatures from the late autumn storm. But it still illustrated that there’s nothing else in West Coast college basketball to rival what Gonzaga has created over the last two decades.
“I am an undergrad degree-holder of the institution and so have been part of it for over 35 years and I’ve seen sort of what it was before we have experienced the modern era of basketball and what it has been during that time,” Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh said. “And then some of the things that we now find ourselves challenged with and have opportunities around and it’s very clearly been an important dimension of who we are and how we’re seen.”
Gonzaga is no longer the plucky up-and-comer with the frequently mispronounced name, and it no longer really fits in the “mid-major” category, not with its resume. And with college sports realignment back in play, the Zags are being talked about as a potential target for bigger conferences that once never would have looked to Spokane.
The possibility of a future somewhere other than the West Coast Conference is on the table for Gonzaga, which has been a member since 1979.
“There’s always the need to look and the need to evaluate and it’s not simple math, it’s calculus,” Gonzaga athletic director Chris Standiford said. “I think you just have to stay open-minded and you have to be willing to look at the existing ecosystem and recognize that it’s not static, it’s very dynamic. And you have to anticipate what some of that dynamism means, and not be complacent.”
The talk surrounding Gonzaga is not new. There has been talk in the past of a move to the Big East or the Mountain West. More recently, the Zags have been linked to the Pac-12 and Big 12 following the latest realignment moves involving those conferences.
All those moves were based on football. Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC; USC and UCLA to the Big Ten; the Big 12 adding Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and BYU, which is a WCC member in basketball.
But the realignment juggle may be hitting its peak with regards to football. That’s left the question of what’s next and what still could be done with college basketball, the next most profitable college sport.
Gonzaga wouldn’t bring television market size. It would definitely offer brand relevance.
The Zags’ basketball resume is impressive: two national championship game appearances for the men, 23 straight NCAA Tournament berths, 21 WCC regular-season titles. The women’s basketball program is also regularly ranked in the AP Top 25 and has made three Sweet Sixteen trips and one Elite Eight appearance.
The Bulldogs are regularly strong in other sports like baseball and soccer, all helping to create national recognition.
“I think that’s probably the lesson that I get taught over and over is we underappreciate the power of our brand nationally,” Standiford said. “I think it means a lot to the sport of college basketball. I think it means a lot to the collegiate model because it inspires people to recognize that you still have a pathway to get there and it’s not economically driven, it’s opportunity-driven.”
One of those opportunities for Gonzaga could be with the Big 12, whose commissioner has not been shy about expressing his desire to have a presence on the West Coast. In Las Vegas earlier this month, Brett Yormark reiterated statements he’s made several times about the future of the Big 12 being larger than the four schools joining in 2023.
“We want to go coast-to-coast at some point in time,” Yormark said. “We would love to get into that fourth time zone and we will at some point.”
Yormark also said he views basketball as being undervalued and that he would be open to adding a member that doesn’t play football: “If there is a stand-alone basketball opportunity that creates value enterprise, value for the conference, absolutely.”
His statements appears to point toward Gonzaga, which seems to stand alone in its potential value because of its basketball program, at least out West. But the Pac-12 is also evaluating its future with the pending departure of the Los Angeles schools.
Any substantial consideration by the Pac-12 likely must wait until its next media deals are finalized. The Big 12 finished its TV deals earlier this year.
When asked generally if Gonzaga feels wanted, Standiford simply replied, “yes,” although there are no offers from potential suitors yet.
There is also the possibility that Gonzaga ends up staying put, deciding the WCC — all of its member schools are private, faith-based institutions — is the right fit.
“It’s not as easy or as simple as I think perhaps some people might want to think it is,” McCulloh said. “We are still a small- to medium-sized university that’s in a town called Spokane and our success as an institution has been very interrelated with our community and with our alumni.”