PROVO — If Gonzaga leaves the West Coast Conference for the Mountain West, should BYU seek to follow to a league it helped create?
In basketball and Olympic sports, that would be a no-brainer, if you don't mind killing relationships. Again.
To give up football independence, well, that is a more difficult discussion.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported late Wednesday afternoon that WCC powerhouse Gonzaga, which played for the NCAA national championship last year, is in discussions with the Mountain West to potentially join that league.
MWC commissioner Craig Thompson called the discussions “exploratory” in nature and noted that he has been discussing matters with six universities since last August. He told the newspaper BYU was not one of those six.
Union-Tribune writer Mark Zeigler said he had sources telling him that BYU would consider a return to the Mountain West, at least in basketball, if Gonzaga joins. BYU’s contract with ESPN, the main catalyst for leaving the MWC in 2011, is up in 2019. The WCC is an ESPN TV property.
Right now, this story is far too speculative to give weight to Gonzaga leaving the WCC or BYU following. The meat just isn’t there. It is speculative, premature and, as WCC interim commissioner Connie Hurlbut told ESPN 960’s Ben Criddle Wednesday night, “It is not appropriate to address a hypothetical.”
But that’s what we like to do.
If the Zags left the WCC, the Cougars would be wise to follow if Thompson and the MWC presidents made the approach.
Why? Because such a move would solidify the MWC as a basketball powerhouse in the West — not only by reputation for television contract discussions, but also for the brand, crowd sizes, increased competition and ability to earn higher NCAA seeds for league members who qualify.
Gonzaga is the crown jewel of the WCC, which is a basketball-oriented league. If it leaves, it is significantly less.
“The biggest difference in the MWC and WCC basketball is the size of the crowds,” BYU basketball coach Dave Rose said Wednesday in an interview on ESPN 960 AM. “As far as the competition, it is close, and I think fans would see that if they were to hold a matchup between the two leagues.”
But there’s no hiding the crowd size. The WCC is nothing like the MWC.
The return to crowds housed at arenas at UNLV, SDSU, New Mexico, Wyoming, Fresno State, Colorado State would be a major upgrade from embarrassing empty seats found in high school-sized gyms in the WCC.
The energy level of MWC crowds is a storied and historical part of BYU’s basketball heritage, and its own Marriott Center has long been viewed as an electrifying venue.
I have little doubt BYU’s players and fans would be more than anxious to embrace that part of their history again in the region. The best MWC basketball crowds are equal to or greater than the Pac-12, in my opinion.
In 2017, BYU ranked No. 14 in the NCAA in basketball attendance, just ahead of No. 15 Arizona. SDSU was No. 25, just ahead of Utah at No. 26. New Mexico ranked 28th among the top 30.
Would MWC presidents want BYU back after it abandoned the league in the great shuffle of 2011, when Utah left for the Pac-12 and TCU embraced the Big 12?
Also, BYU’s administration has tremendous gratitude to WCC leadership for finding a place for Cougar basketball and Olympic sports.
BYU didn’t leave the MWC for a Power 5 conference, it left for exposure, and it didn’t hurt that it quadrupled its TV deal. That didn’t go over well with some MWC presidents and athletic directors. More than a few said they’d never schedule the Cougars again.
Things are more palatable to BYU and MWC leadership now than in 2011. UNLV, Hawaii and Boise State have scheduled BYU. The MWC, if open to a BYU return in hoops, might insist the school bring its football program back, too.
Emotions and feelings aside, these are business decisions, not high school relationship drama. Money talks. So does exposure. The MWC wouldn’t look at the Zags, or BYU for that matter, if it didn’t enhance the brand and TV possibilities.
BYU and ESPN have been great partners. Coupled with BYUtv's ability to pitch in like it has with the WCC, the Cougars bring huge value to trigger exposure.
Football is a different animal.
BYU has started down a path of independence it believes in. No BYU administrator has indicated publicly it is time for that to end anytime soon. No BYU administrator has had anything but praise for its relationship with ESPN, citing it as mutual admiration.
Some argue BYU football would be better off to return to a league and play for a championship and an easier path to better bowl games.
Others argue BYU’s independence has brought far more exposure, flexibility, freedom, NFL stadium appearances, Power 5 competition and has placed the Cougars in a situation where many conferences actually consider them a Power 5 school in schedule matrixes.
These pro-independent folks argue going to the MWC or American Athletic Conference would only embolden close rivals to use a mid-major label against them in recruiting.
Thing is, if football doesn’t return to winning more games against its Power 5 foes, achieve higher rankings, and haul in more of the top LDS talent than this past year, standing up for an independent life becomes less noble an endeavor and tougher to defend.
It would help BYU's basketball discussion if it could win the WCC outright, or its tournament. Neither has happened in six years.