Impending BYU Exit Opens the Door to West Coast Conference Membership for Denver

Brigham Young University’s (BYU) likely exit from the West Coast Conference (WCC) to the Big 12 will force membership changes at the West Coast Conference. Not only is BYU the conference’s second-best hoops program (behind Gonzaga, of course) but the Cougars have won eight consecutive WCC Commissioners Cup titles for all-around athletic success. Sound familiar? Denver rakes in the national Directors’Cup for all of Division I non-football schools on an annual basis.

The loss of BYU is a concern to flagship member Gonzaga University, the best mid-major basketball program in the country. Gonzaga needs BYU’s strong national ranking (RPI) in the conference to bolster their national hoops aspirations. There is a risk, slight as it may be, that the falling dominos may even mean the eventual exit of Gonzaga. They nearly bolted to the Mountain West several years ago. But frankly, the rest of the conference, outside of St. Mary’s, is much more like Denver with a focus on Olympic sports and struggling-to-middling basketball programs. Surely, if DU is to fill the open vacancy, fans need to look no further than new hoops coach Jeff Wulbrun to make DU hoops ‘presentable’ and not a competitive embarrassment. Yes, this story isn’t new but now more than ever, Denver needs to flex their hoops muscles.

As for the other sports, Pepperdine finished right behind Denver in Directors’ Cup standings this past academic year and their men’s golf team won the national title. Santa Clara women’s soccer won the national championship and a host of WCC teams were ranked at or above Denver in nearly all the sports DU sponsors. The only thing Denver has to lose is, possibly, the national Directors Cup title in a conference that values Olympic sports and is stronger top-to-bottom than the Summit League.

One should assume with one or two possible openings in the WCC, Denver will be on the shortlist along with former WCC member institution Seattle University. Gonzaga is said to be blocking SU from rejoining the conference to protect their interest in the state of Washington. Still, it’s hard to believe that four hours of separation would create enough reason to block the Redhawks from entry indefinitely. It is likely, however, that poor basketball programs have stifled both Seattle’s and Denver’s efforts to join the WCC in the past.

Seattle is a geographic outlier in the 13-team football-centric Western Athletic Conference (WAC). In an email obtained by Out of Bounds, “one WAC AD, citing a conversation with WAC Commissioner Jeff Hurd, referenced administrators in the conference who have ‘the desire to eliminate a geographic outlier,’ in regards to the Seattle University.” Not only does Seattle not field a football team, but they are also nearly 900 miles away from their nearest conference competitor. Expect them to make a desperate run at WCC membership.

When BYU announces their acceptance of the Big 12’s invitation, the nine-member conference and their respective presidents will likely decide on adding a member to balance the conference.  Should Gonzaga remain, they will have a large say in who enters the conference.  In 2018, Gonzaga embarrassed Denver in a 101-40 basketball rout, their largest margin of victory in program history – after they called off the dogs in the second half.  Denver must now show that they are serious about being competitive in basketball because the WCC brand includes basketball teams that perform above other mid-major conferences. Fortunately for Denver, Seattle can’t seem to get untracked on the basketball court either.

It’s worth hoping that Denver Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation Karlton Creech is on the phone regularly with WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez telling her that DU can chew gum and dribble at the same time. Denver likely has this academic year and basketball season until next summer to prove they are a serious candidate.

7 thoughts on “Impending BYU Exit Opens the Door to West Coast Conference Membership for Denver”

  1. We just don’t know how open that door would be, given DU’s outlier position in the WCC footprint.

    Here’s what DU brings to the table:

    SCHOOL:
    -US News top 100 National University in 2020 (#80) (Upper third of WCC schools)
    -6,000 undergrad, 7,000 grad students – WCC size
    -Endowment — $700-800 million – WCC size
    -Private, Methodist past, founded 1864 (similar to WCC privates)

    MARKET & MEDIA
    -Fast growing top 20-25 TV market, with metro area population of 3 million
    -Denver is an affluent, upscale, top-rated white collar city that will be attractive to WCC schools’ recruiting efforts for athletes and regular students
    -Easy access, large airport with non-stop flights to most WCC cities
    -TV relationship with Altitude Sports in Rocky Mountain Region, available nationally on satellite

    DU ATHLETICS:
    Top ranked non-football athletic dept in America for the last 11 of last 12 years (NACDA points)
    -96% athletic graduation rate
    -Denver has NCAA Tourney level programs in nine WCC sports – M/W Swimming, M/W Tennis, M/WGolf, M/WSoccer, W Volleyball
    -Average athletic dept GPA 3.5
    -DU has offered travel expense incentives in the past to the WCC
    -$35+ million athletic budget/yr
    -All DU sports facilities under 23 years old and high level
    -Basketball facilities due for an upgrade, WCC entrance will help funding
    -33 NCAA Titles (7 hockey, 21 Skiing, 1 lacrosse(all in sports not in the WCC)
    -Additional exposure through top tier ice hockey, lacrosse and ski programs
    -DU Student athletes stay out of trouble

    If this actually happens it would be a net positive — I am sure the DU coaches and DU athletes in those sports sponsored by the WCC would be thrilled, as road trips to the west coast are likely more fun than the Dakotas. It would also help to boost DU’s west coast presence in general in terms of recruiting both athletes and regular students, and Denver would be an attractive destination for WCC fans to visit

    I am sure also that the academic side of the house at DU would enjoy being associated with the other WCC private schools at DU’s size, endowment and academic level, although I am not sure how much this matters to the academics at DU…

    NEGATIVES:

    -DU is outside the WCC historic footprint – this has always been the dealbreaker in the past, due to distance/expense
    -DU Basketball programs are usually below average (today)
    -DU is not a religious school anymore (the others in the WCC are), although we do have a Methodist founding.
    – I am not so sure that it would make any difference in gate attendance in Denver as most WCC schools are not drawing cards, save for DU playing a home hoop game once a year with Gonzaga.

  2. Would be awesome and a final home for DU athletics. It’s just really unfortunate mens basketball plummeted the way they did. The timing is awful. Had this happened in 2013 I think WCC would give DU a real shot. Very hard ask when we are one of the worst BBall programs in all of D1. This is why it should have been important to cut ties with Billups earlier instead of riding it into the ground.

    We’ll see. I’m not hopeful.

  3. WCC fan here. Been thinking about all the scenarios the WCC will consider, and how fragile a moment this is for the conference. In a weird way, the presence of BYU unified the conference by keeping the TV money sufficient for GU. Ironically, BYU was a key dance partner when GU entertained a move to Mtn West. Now GU is in a position to dictate who the 10th team will be, and the other prezes can think about showing GU the door and reverting back to a conservative academic-oriented league. It’s a tense place to be. Some thoughts about schools: – I’ve heard that DU is pretty happy in the Summit. Is that misguided? Seems like a league with good days ahead of it (unless the Dakota schools move up to FBS). DU made lots of sense when BYU was in the league, but we all knew that scenario had a sunset date. – GU will not let SU into the conference, unless they really think they are out of options. I’d be shocked to see this happen. – I have no idea what GU thinks of GCU, but they are the most athletically ambitious non-football school in this region. GU makes the case for GCU based purely on the NET rating benefit (which still assumes GCU will sustain basketball succes). Local news in Spokane has already mentioned this idea. Most WCC prez’s will hate this idea. It’s hard to see happening, unless they totally cave to GU and the TV check they help to create for the league. But this is a league with a long history of administrative stubborness, so I can just as readily see the WCC prez’s digging in heels and telling GU to figure out their next move. – Cal Baptist could be a compromise option. The school basically has WCC caliber facilities now. It’s an 8th Cal. school, which Portland hates. But at least it’s close to LAX so it actually creates a second travel partnership within So-Cal, instead of that awkward USD-BYU trip. It doesn’t tone down its evangelicalism the way P’dine does, so it’s not like any WCC school really wants this team. But it could come down to unbalanced scheduling in a 9-team league, or the least bad option everyone can agree on.

    I’m fascinated to see what the WCC says and does next.

  4. Thanks, Rob. Most DU fans and students see the Summit League as a poor match overall. There are very few ‘like schools’ in the Summit League and students do not relate to most of the member schools. While DU has a great rivalry with North Dakota in hockey, it has not translated to a conference rival in non-hockey. The closest school is Omaha, 550 miles away. DU is much more closely aligned with the WCC, academically and athletically, than the Summit League. Denver had an above average basketball program under Joe Scott but was a disaster under Rodney Billups. Denver must prove that they are serious about basketball and, ultimately facilities, to earn a slot in the WCC. So, this next season under a new coach and new players, Denver needs to start to make a statement that hoops is a priority. Time and results will tell if Denver has earned consideration.

  5. 5B West is right about DU fans and students, who would certainly prefer the WCC to the Summit, but I’m not sure either group’s voice is really very loud at this point. Only name brand or schools in our region seem to draw fans here, so even if Denver did get into the WCC, nobody is knocking down the doors for tickets to see Pepperdine or LMU or St. Mary’s here.

    I think DU’s coaches would probably prefer the WCC, too, for recruiting and travel purposes.

    I don’t know how the Denver athletic department feels about the WCC these days. During the Peg Bradley-Doppes administration up until 2018, I think DU was still courting the WCC quite actively. But under the Karlton Creech administration at DU, I don’t have a strong sense that DU is campaigning for this WCC opening, and I don’t have a strong sense that this is something the Chancellor or Board of Trustees is actively courting, either.

    That said, all of these groups are good at secrecy, so who knows?

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