IN KEEPING WITH the spirit of the season, the WAC basketball coaches, the media, and even the players, got together for the league's annual media day Monday at the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City and conducted a poll.
Neither Michael Dukakis nor George Bush won. Instead, the University of Utah and Colorado State University were the victors. If the polls mean anything, then either the Utes or the Rams will rule the WAC next March when the race is over.The players and the media picked the Utes to finish first, while the coaches picked the Rams.
It isn't unusual for the Universty of Utah to be awarded the preseason nod. The Utes have won four WAC titles and own the third-best composite WAC record (202-148, .577) in history, behind only UTEP and BYU.
But Colorado State? The Rams have never won the WAC. They've never finished higher than third. In their 19 years as a league member they've only posted three records higher than .500. In the league composite standings they rank seventh at 113-167, .404. Only Hawaii and Air Force rank lower.
Never have the Rams been the preseason pick. Never until yesterday.
It was an historic occasion.
Coach Boyd Grant, who, as we'll see, is the main reason for the new optimism in Ft. Collins, Colo., took it in stride.
"Fine with me," he said.
"We'd like to win it for a change.
"Let it be our alumni who feel good."
Grant's Rams have also been picked to win the WAC by Street & Smith Magazine and The Sporting News, while Sports Illustrated picked them second, behind New Mexico.
"I know the November polls don't guarantee anything," said Grant. "But the preseason ratings have been good for us. They
helped us sell tickets, helped get people excited."
Nearly 6,000 season tickets, have already been sold to CSU's Moby Gym for the upcoming season. Counting 2,500 free student tickets per game, that almost fills up the 9,100-seat facility. A facility that, until last year, when Grant arrived and started his hoop revival, had been sold out only twice since 1976. Once when Hollywood came to town and filmed the 1976 basketball movie "One on One" with Robbie Benson, calling for extras to fill the seats; and once in 1978, when New Mexico and Michael Cooper visited.
Last season, there were three sellouts for NIT games, all won by the late-surging Rams, who made it to the semis of the NIT in New York before losing to Ohio State.
Because of that strong finish in Madison Square Garden; and because Pat Durham and Trent Shippen, among others, return; and because Boyd Grant preaches a matchup defense that makes other teams tired just thinking about it . . . the '88-89 Rams are highly regarded in spite of who they are and who they represent.
Grant is a Ram alum himself, and therefore included among the number he would like to make happy in 1988-89, not to mention proud, not to mention redeemed.
"There is an inferiority complex that's built up over the years in Ft. Collins," he said. "The community needs something to feel good about again. That's what athletics should do. Make you feel good about who you are. Help your day."
As Grant knows, CSU wasn't always synonymous with "second division." For 12 seasons, from 1961-73, he was an assistant coach with the Rams, under Coach Jim Williams. During that time, CSU went 184-106 and had just one losing record.
But for some reason, their entering the WAC (in 1970) began the long, slow decline, and after Grant left it got worse. While he went on to post a 94-6 record as head coach at the College of Southern Idaho, and a 194-74 record at Fresno State - winning the national juco title with the former and the 1983 NIT with the latter - the Rams were becoming the team you loved to beat in the WAC.
Williams finally retired at CSU and Tony McAndrews took over, to no greater avail.
When McAndrews was fired prior to last season, Grant - who had retired from Fresno State, and basketball coaching, in 1987 - was approached about coming back.
He still had a lot of green clothes in his closet, so he said OK.
He took the team to a 22-13 record last year, climaxed by the NIT "Final Four" finish. Now he has his own radio show, and his own TV show, and doesn't have to buy many meals in Ft. Collins.
It should be noted that his WAC record in his debut season was just 8-8, good for a fifth-place tie.
But for the Colorado State Rams, breaking even in the WAC was a major development.
Winning the whole thing this year, that would be cause for a ticker-tape parade. Twenty years is a long time to wait. If the polls mean anything, this could be the year. Now all they've got to do is play the season.