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Compatible couple: BYU, West Coast Conference have great deal in common

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 7:50 a.m. MDT

Editor's note: This is the sixth in an occasional series examining the BYU football program's move to independence and jump to the West Coast Conference in most other sports. Read the first, second, third, fourth and fifth installments.

PROVO — In recent years, and as recently as last summer, the eight presidents of the West Coast Conference schools discussed expansion for their league at length, but ultimately decided not to take any action.

They couldn't have dreamed a school like BYU would be available to add to the conference.

"It certainly didn't cross our minds," West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich told the Deseret News. "BYU's name did come up when we talked expansion, but it wasn't seen as a possibility. We talked more conceptually, about principles related to what we want."

Late last summer, while BYU was moving toward going independent in football and searching for a home for its other sports, the WCC was well-positioned and well-prepared to extend an invitation.

Originally, BYU's plan was to go independent in football and to join the Western Athletic Conference in its other sports. But when news of the plan was leaked in mid-August, the Mountain West Conference hastily extended invitations to WAC members Fresno State and Nevada. Both schools accepted those invitations, foiling BYU's plan to partner with the WAC.

In the ensuing days in August, BYU and the WCC struck a deal. The Cougars officially join the league at midnight tonight.

"It was a mutual courting. We had information about the other of what they were about," said Zaninovich. "For me, I certainly had no knowledge of what was happening with the WAC until that story broke."

Zaninovich said relationships played a big role in the deal being done. He knew BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe when both worked at Stanford years ago. BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson had relationships with the presidents in the WCC.

So Zaninovich placed a call to Holmoe.

"We had been doing work on expansion, and had chosen not to pursue new membership," Zaninovich said. "But we had a full model in place. Those two weeks in August, I reached out to Tom because I had a previous relationship with him. I said, 'Hey, I understand you're looking for a non-football conference.' That was a time when they were trying to figure out what their next moves were and whether they could put a football schedule together with a non-football conference.

"It was apparent to them, when they looked at the West Coast Conference, how closely aligned we were institutionally and basketball and otherwise, and what a good fit it would be. It's sort of like a job interview. You sit down and start talking, and you can tell pretty quick when something is a fit or not.

"One thing led to another and two weeks later, we were in Provo having a press conference. BYU certainly fits that mold very well. I don't think anybody thought of it as a possibility, but we knew what we were looking for and BYU fit that. That's why the deal came together so quickly. The presidents came to a strong consensus pretty quickly."

A conference of stability

The WCC was born in 1952 with the intent of providing a convenient way for five schools in the San Francisco Bay Area — Saint Mary's, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Jose State and Pacific — to play basketball.

Over the next two-plus decades, membership changed dramatically. In 1979, Gonzaga and San Diego joined the league and the WCC held steady with the same eight members for the next 32 years. The addition of BYU marks the league's first change in membership since '79.

The conference footprint stretches from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California. "The eight WCC members span the western coast of the United States from Canada to Mexico, from the pine forests of Eastern Washington, to the Columbia River Basin, to the dynamic San Francisco Bay Area, to the sunny beaches of Southern California," according to the league's Web site.

"Until recent changes, The Ivy League, the Pac-10 and the West Coast Conference were the longest-running conferences, as constituted, in terms of membership," Zaninovich said. "That's more of a symbolic thing. What it symbolizes for me is the stability that our conference has had and the alignment between our institutions, something we take great pride in. It's a reason why, frankly, we've had opportunities to expand in the past with other institutions and chose not to.

"Before or after BYU, we feel pretty stable. We don't have a necessity to expand. We're not being forced by the landscape to expand. We're looking for opportunities that fit with what's been a long, stable and very successful partnership among like-minded institutions that we call the West Coast Conference."

All eight WCC members are private, religious-affiliated institutions, like BYU.

Similar but different

While BYU shares similar values as the other members of the WCC, the key element that makes this marriage work is that all the schools are privately owned.

"Our presidents are less concerned with being affiliated with faith-based institutions than being a conference of private institutions," Zaninovich said. "That's more important, and on top of that, undergraduate-focused institutions — that was a big deal, when talking to BYU, for our presidents."

BYU's enrollment is more than 30,000, while the largest in the WCC is Loyola Marymount, which has 9,015 students. The WCC's overall student enrollment is 55,540.

"BYU is a 30,000-student campus, but it's an undergraduate-focused population. It's not a huge research university," Zaninovich said. "That made them similar to what we are."

Zaninovich added that the fact BYU's basketball arena, the 22,700-seat Marriott Center, is so much bigger than any of the other arenas in the league — Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center, which seats 6,000, is the next-largest — has been overplayed.

"The reality is, BYU plays in a 22,000-seat arena, which is different from everybody," Zaninovich said. "Show me a Pac-10 venue, or multiple Pac-10 venues, that are close to that size. BYU has a 22,000-seat building on its campus, which it can fill because it has that many students. It's just an anomaly. BYU, in a lot of positive ways, is different from everybody."

There aren't any other schools, Zaninovich said, that compare to BYU.

"No one else has that large of a student body affiliated with a private church as they are with the international reach that plays FBS football. They're just different. That's one reason why it makes sense for them to have an independent football model. For the rest of it, they see themselves most similar to us, whether that's philosophically, regionally, all of those things. I don't think the size of an arena matters that much. Certainly, we may have capacity issues with BYU for away games, just like Gonzaga does. But that's not a bad thing to have."

Holmoe notes that 58 percent of BYU's alumni live within the four states — California, Washington, Oregon and Utah — represented by WCC schools. Indeed, the Cougars' large fan base is expected to increase attendance at most WCC venues in which BYU plays.

"The WCC is a great fit for us and we feel we are a great fit for them," Holmoe said.

Some of the other major differences between BYU and the WCC? There's the time zones. The eight WCC schools are located in the Pacific Time Zone, while BYU is located in the Mountain Time Zone.

And while the WCC is a predominantly sea-level league, BYU plays home games at an elevation of 4,550 feet — which could be seen as a competitive advantage for the Cougars.

Financially, BYU could have an edge, too. According to federal figures, BYU has an athletic budget of $35.6 million, while the average budget at the eight WCC schools is $10.6 million. While nearly one-third of BYU's athletic budget is spent on football, the Cougar basketball program spends about $3.2 million, which is considerably higher than the WCC average.

WCC AT A GLANCE

BYU

Location: Provo, Utah

Nickname: Cougars

School colors: Blue, White

Enrollment: 32,947

Religious affiliation: LDS

Joining conference: 2011

Famous alums: Jimmer Fredette, Danny Ainge, Steve Young, Ty Detmer, Mitt Romney

Gonzaga

Location: Spokane, Wash.

Nickname: Bulldogs

School colors: Blue, White

Enrollment: 7,275

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit)

Joined conference: 1979

Famous alums: John Stockton, Jason Bay, Bing Crosby, Adam Morrison

Loyola Marymount

Location: Los Angeles, Calif.

Nickname: Lions

School colors: Crimson, Blue

Enrollment: 9,015

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic

Joined conference: 1955

Famous alums: Rick Adelman, Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers, Pete Newell, Andrew Bynum

Pepperdine

Location: Malibu, Calif.

Nickname: Waves

School colors: Blue, Orange

Enrollment: 8,000

Religious affiliation: Churches of Christ

Joined conference: 1955

Famous alums: Dennis Johnson, Doug Christie, Mike Scott

Portland

Location: Portland, Ore.

Nickname: Pilots

School colors: Purple, White

Enrollment: 3,670

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic

Joined conference: 1976

Famous alums: Erik Spoelstra

Saint Mary's

Location: Moraga, Calif.

Nickname: Gaels

School colors: Red, Blue

Enrollment: 3,810

Religious affiliation: Catholic

Joined conference: 1952

Famous alums: Tom Candiotti, Von Hayes, Mark Teahen

San Diego

Location: San Diego, Calif.

Nickname: Toreros

School colors: Terero Blue, Navy, White

Enrollment: 7,835

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic

Joined conference: 1979

Famous alums: Mike Brown, Bill Bavasi, Bernie Bickerstaff,

San Francisco

Location: San Francisco, Calif.

Nickname: Dons

School colors: Green, Gold

Enrollment: 8,775

Religious affiliation: Catholic (Jesuit)

Joined conference: 1952

Famous alums: Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Bill Cartwright

Santa Clara

Location: Santa Clara, Calif.

Nickname: Broncos

School colors: Maroon, White

Enrollment: 7,990

Religious affiliation: Roman Catholic (Jesuit)

Joined conference: 1952

Famous alums: Steve Nash, Kurt Rambis, Brandi Chastain

email: jeffc@desnews.com

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