SPOKANE, Wash. – Snowflakes were just starting to fall for real as students hastily pitched tents with the intent of camping for a basketball game more than 24 hours away.
The night party was ultimately canceled over concerns about snow and freezing temperatures from the late fall storm. But he still proved that there is nothing else in West Coast college basketball to rival what Gonzaga has created over the past two decades.
“I’m a graduate of the institution and therefore have been a part of it for over 35 years and have seen what it was like before we experienced the modern era of basketball and what it was like 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 clearly been an important dimension of who we are and how we’re viewed.”
Gonzaga is no longer the brave up-and-comer with the oft-mispronounced name, and he no longer really fits the “mid-major” category, not with his resume. And with the realignment of college sports back in the game, there’s talk of the Zags as a potential target for bigger conferences that once might never have looked to Spokane.
The possibility of a future other than the West Coast Conference is on the table for Gonzaga, who 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 calculation,” 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 discussion around 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 by adding Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and BYU, which is a WCC member in basketball.
But the dexterity of realignment could reach its peak where football is concerned. That left the question of what comes next and what could still be done with college basketball, the next most lucrative college sport.
Gonzaga would not carry the size of the television market. It would certainly offer relevance to the brand.
The Zags’ basketball résumé is impressive: two national championship game appearances for men, 23 consecutive 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.
Bulldogs are regularly strong in other sports such as baseball and soccer, all helping to build national recognition.
“I think that’s probably the lesson I’m taught over and over again is that we underestimate 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 path to get there and it’s not driven by economics, it’s driven by opportunities.
One of those opportunities for Gonzaga could be with the Big 12, whose commissioner hasn’t been shy about expressing his desire to have a presence on the West Coast. In Las Vegas earlier this month, Brett Yormark reiterated claims he’s made several times that the Big 12’s future will be bigger than the four schools that merge in 2023.
“We want to go coast to coast sooner or later,” Yormark said. “We’d like to get into that fourth time zone and we will at some point.”
Yormark also said that he considers basketball undervalued and that he would be willing to add a member who doesn’t play football: “If there is a standalone basketball opportunity that creates business value, conference value, absolutely.”
His statements seem to point towards Gonzaga, who appears to be unique in his potential value because of his basketball program, at least in the West. But the Pac-12 is also considering its future with the imminent departure of Los Angeles schools.
Any substantive considerations by the Pac-12 will likely have to wait until its next media deals are finalized. The Big 12 ended its television deals earlier this year.
When asked broadly whether Gonzaga feels desired, Standiford simply replied “yes,” though there are no offers yet from potential suitors.
There is also the possibility that Gonzaga will end up staying, deciding that the WCC – all of its member schools are private religious institutions – is the right solution.
“It’s not as easy or simple as I think maybe some people might want to think it is,” McCulloh said. “We are still a small to medium-sized university that is located in a city called Spokane, and our success as an institution has been highly correlated with our community and our alumni.”
Gonzaga reflects on the future with a realignment nod that originally appeared on NBCSports.com