Canzano: Gonzaga to the Pac-12?
Mark Few says Gonzaga needs to make a "prudent decision."
The Pac-12 Conference men’s basketball coaches would push back. Believe me, nobody in their right mind wants to see Gonzaga standing between them and a conference championship.
I’m not sure the Pac-12’s presidents and chancellors would allow commissioner George Kliavkoff to make the move, either. But for the first time on Thursday I wondered whether Gonzaga might one day end up as a Pac-12 member in basketball.
I’ve talked with Mark Few a few times over the years. He’s led Gonzaga to a couple of Final Fours and coached five first-team All-Americans. But the conversation I had with Few on Thursday turned to conference realignment.
Few wonders why powerhouse teams in different sports should be beholden to their traditional leagues. He offered a number of examples of high-profile basketball teams, soccer teams, baseball teams and soccer teams that probably belong in higher profile conferences.
“We’ve always just done stuff because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” he said. “It’s always been, ‘You’re in this league. You’re in that league. You guys stay in your region and you stay in that region.’ …I have no idea why we don’t have leagues different for every sport.”
The Pac-12 is exploring expansion in the wake of the announced departures of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. San Diego State makes a lot of sense. Beyond that, I’ve struggled to identify no-brainer options for the conference.
Boise State? Fresno State? SMU or UNLV? Maybe. I’ve been focused on football brands and television households. What I hadn’t seriously considered until Thursday was the Pac-12 inviting Gonzaga as a basketball-only member.
Gonzaga has been talking with a number of consultants and conferences, including the Pac-12. The current round of expansion discussions have focused on football and media rights valuations.
“I think what you’re seeing with the first run is football. The next run you’ll see will be programs in the basketball realm that can move the needle and actually generate TV review, generate eyeballs and have a brand,” Few said.
Gonzaga’s basketball brand is undeniable. No other men’s basketball program in the country has generated more NCAA Tournament “units” than Few’s program did in the last five seasons.
Make the tournament, receive one unit. Win a tournament game, advance and earn another one. Gonzaga, because of its success, has piled up those valuable units. Last season, each NCAA Tournament unit was worth more than $337,000.
“Through this whole run we’ve positioned ourselves really, really well,” Few said. “Those conversations have been in the mix with all of those conferences, quite frankly. Everybody is jostling around, seeing what they’re doing.”
I reached out to WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez on Thursday afternoon to take the temperature. She didn’t sound one bit surprised.
“Whenever conference realignment happens there’s usually buzz around Gonzaga given what a strong program they have,” she said. “Right now, everyone is having conversations about realignment and rightly so given the current landscape.”
Gonzaga has been wildly successful competing as a member of the WCC. It wins a pile of games and competes in one of the few conferences that grants the regular-season champion a double-bye to the conference tournament. It wakes up every season with an unencumbered path to the NCAA Tournament.
Said Nevarez: “Gonzaga has shown that they can vie for a national title from the WCC.”
Few joined me today on my radio show (podcast Portland's 750-AM here). His comments are bound to spark conversations. His basketball program is already exploring some outside-the-box options. On Friday, for example, Gonzaga will play Tennessee in an exhibition basketball game that will be televised on pay-per-view and benefit charity.
Said Few: “I’m curious how pay-per-view will go.”
Also, Kentucky and Gonzaga have signed on for a six-game series. Two games will be played at neutral sites, two games will be held in Kentucky at Rupp Arena, and two games will be played in Spokane.
Anyone else note the strong SEC flavor to all of this?
It’s why the Pac-12 should probably take a deep look at Gonzaga. Does adding it as a basketball-only member make sense? Does the revenue pencil out? UCLA is a basketball school, adding Gonzaga doesn’t come close to matching the Los Angeles television market. But it does replace the men’s NCAA Tournament divot left by the Bruins departure.
I asked Few what matters to him. If this were a basketball-only decision, driven by the success of his program, what kinds of things are important? He talked about expanding the brand of Gonzaga and attracting better recruits. Few doesn’t just want to make the Final Four. He wants a national championship.
“That’s the biggest thing for me,” he said.
I hadn’t seriously considered Gonzaga as an addition to the Pac-12 in this round of conference expansion. Again, all the discussion has been football driven to this point.
No doubt, the Pac-12 men’s basketball coaches would cringe at the thought. And again, Kliavkoff would need his bosses on board. That will be tricky. I don’t think the Pac-12 leaders would have natural alignment on the addition of Gonzaga.
Also, there’s an important question for Gonzaga wrapped up in all of this. Is it better off staying in the WCC where it has enjoyed a long, fruitful run?
“We just need to look and kind of make a really solid, prudent decision,” Few said. “So far what we’ve been doing has been working pretty good also, but the landscape is changing and we’re aware of that.”
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