The Mountain West Conference is looking to shake things up again and Gonzaga is their prime target to upgrade its conference basketball fortunes. Usually, these things are handled in private, but both parties, Gonzaga and the Mountain West Commissioner, have expressed a public interest. And, the change could happen as soon as next season. The story was broken earlier this week by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Other reputable sources such as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation, and even The Denver Post have reported on the story over the last several days.
The timing is not ideal for Denver with a current transition in athletic directors from Peg Bradley-Doppes to Karlton Creech. Creech publicly stated his desire to not make radical changes because of DU’s past athletic success. Also, the Zags’ departure would open up a slot which is likely to be taken by the University of Seattle, a member of the WAC and a former WCC member, that would fill the Washington state void if the Zags leave the West Coast Conference. Or, Gonzaga may be using this threat of departure as a negotiating ploy to pry a larger share of the basketball revenue from the other conference schools in the WCC.
The Mountain West is said to have spoken to a total of five teams and one of those is BYU – yet, another WCC member. If that occurred, and BYU is said to be interested in the Mountain West if Gonzaga departs, there would be two openings – and that is where DU is likely to fit.
Rumors have circulated for years, and been confirmed by our own Puck Swami, that DU has pushed several times for membership in the WCC only to be denied. But the loss of two programs to the Mountain West would suddenly put Denver in the catbird seat and limit concessions the WCC may have demanded in the past – adding sports, paying for travel and lodging, and accepting a smaller cut of conference revenue.
Added to all this, there is likely to be alignment between DU’s academic and administrative divisions who are likely to see this move as a positive step in elevating Denver’s status by aligning with ‘peer schools’ with similar budgets and academic reputations.
This is not the first time BYU and Gonzaga have made noise about leaving the West Coast Conference. From a negotiating standpoint, the commissioner of the West Coast Conference, Lynn Holzman, might be wise to extend an invitation to Denver and Seattle now, before BYU and/or Gonzaga’s potential departure. Negotiations now provide the best leverage the WCC have to strike their best deal with the two schools. And, then, the future departures of Gonzaga and possibly BYU are less likely to be felt.
On the downside, DU would be joining a conference without Gonzaga – a national power. And, while BYU has a solid basketball program, it would likely draw about the same as Seattle in the city of Denver. Still, there would be more positives than negatives to the alignment of similarly sized schools with similar academic reputations. And, for comparison, in basketball, the WCC power ranking is 13 while the Summit League conference power ranking is 14. So, this is not an insurmountable step-up for the Denver Pioneers.
As with many things, this is likely to come down to money. That is where the rub may come between DU athletics and the administration as athletics would likely have to find an outside funding source for any additional costs to join the West Coast Conference. Interestingly, however, travel costs for Denver would remain roughly the same because current travel to conference games is always done by plane.
We should know more about the Mountain West moves by late spring if they are to happen this next season. Then, Karlton Creech will face his first major leadership challenge to either take a bold next step or remain with the status quo.