Sure, I know that the MWC voted in February not to expand the conference. But with the end of the football bowl season at that time, perhaps they were concentrating just on the football aspects of conference expansion. Now that basketball season has come to an end and another MWC meeting is due in a few months, perhaps commish Thompson and his board of presidents should revisit the subject with a fresh outlook.
Let us set aside any notion of a football addition because obviously, for now at least, that is a dead issue. The focus should be on other areas of concern: namely, the basketball and other sports programs. With the departure of TCU, BYU and Utah, and the addition of Boise State this year, and Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii in 2012, that will leave the conference basketball teams with nine basketball members. One of the smallest basketball conferences in Division I and much weaker after finishing 2011 ranked as the 4th ranked conference in the nation, the remaining teams not withstanding. That might be a fall in stature and prestige for the Mountain West Conference.
So here's my solution:
Expand the MWC by at least one with an excellent school with national recognition and an great basketball program that could help fill up the hole left by the departure of BYU. Several are on the landscape and naturally Utah State comes to mind with their superior NCAA basketball team and the possibility of adding them for football at a later date. But, football aside, another team who should be deemed worthy of inclusion in the Mountain West Conference would be---Gonzaga.
That's right, I said Gonzaga University from the West Coast Conference. Gonzaga is a private Catholic university located in Spokane, Washington, thus placing the school within the northern edge of the MWC footprint. It has a respected and storied history having been founded in 1887 by the Jesuits. Here is what the school would add to the conference:
Gonaga has 648 non-faculty employees, and an enrollment in 2009–10 that was 7,682 (4,729 undergraduate) students, making it a small school on the scale of TCU. But it would add an "Ivy League" type school to the MWC and would enhance the conference's national educational standings. Situated on the banks of the Spokane River, the university's 105 buildings on 131 acres is one of the most scenic of western universities. Gonzaga offers studies in 92 fields and 26 graduate programs, including programs in business, education, engineering, dentistry, theology, law, medicine, nursing and veterinary medicine. The university ranks third in the U.S. News & World Report rankings for Universities-Master's in the West.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball team (affectionately just called "Zags") play in the McCarthey Athletic Center. The center, built in 2004 at $25 million, has a seating capacity of 6,000 for basketball games and all seats are individual and have arm and backrests. While not large by MWC standards it, has served its team well, and thru Febuary 10, 2009, allowed the team to rack up a 71-4 home record. Last season (2009-2010), the Zags went 27-7 overall, and 12-2 in conference play. And this year the Zags went 24-9 in conference play before finally falling to BYU in the NCAA tourney in the 3rd round, but again finishing at the top of the West Coast Conference. And over the years the Zags have produced some impressive players. Perhaps most notable among these is Franklin D. Burgess, Gonzaga's all-time career scoring leader, who went on to graduate from the Gonzaga Law School and later became a U.S. District Court Judge.
The women's basketball team is as good as any women's basketball team in the west. Although they are in the shadow of the mens program media wise, but they are just as competitive. The 11th ranked lady Zags (30-4, 14-0) are the West Coast Conference champions and are in the 2011 Women's NCAA Tournament. They will be on ESPN tonight at 7:00 MT, playing in Spokane against #7 ranked Louisville in the womens Sweet 16. Tune in if you would like to see them in action on the Zags home court.
Gonzaga could also bring a decent baseball team along with a great state-of-the-art facility with the Patterson Baseball Complex and Washington Trust Field. The stadium has 1,300 fixed seats in the main seating bowl and a total capacity of 2,300. It has a natural grass field that includes field lighting, electronic information board, home and visitors locker rooms, offices, training and equipment facilities, modern restrooms, and concession stands for the fans. The Gonzaga baseball program could help solve another issue soon to be facing the MWC: the 2010 MWC has seven teams, but with the departure of BYU, Utah and TCU, they will drop to four. Boise State does not have a baseball team in the NCAA, and with Hawaii a football only program, the MWC baseball program will only add two teams in 2012---Nevada and Fresno State---bringing the baseball side of the conference to six. Even if Utah State was a member, the conference would remain at six teams. The addition of the Gonzaga Bulldogs to the conference, it would at least bring the MWC up to seven baseball programs. The Bulldogs have a good record in baseball, winning the 2009 WCC Championship and an appearace in the NCAA baseball tournament. That year they closed out their season ranked #22 in the nation. There is no question that the team would be a very competitive fit in the MWC.
But in additon to basketball and baseball, Gonzaga brings a few other Division I programs in both mens and womens sports. The Zags have produced good teams in cross county and track, and both the mens and womens teams are showing they can run with the best under track legend and head coach Pat Tyson. The school also has teams in golf, soccer, boxing, tennis, rowing, lacross, and volleyball.
Another plus to adding Gonzaga is the idea of replaciing TCU and BYU with another religious-based private school, which would allow the MWC to possibly maintain certain tax and/or other financial advantages. While I have heard mention of those issues they are beyond my knowledge and scope, so I will leave it to others to argue those merits.
The Nielson Media Research notes that the Spokane Washington media area is ranked 77th nationally. Not huge, but Gonzaga has a basketball fan base spread throughout the State of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Of importance is that Gonzaga is a household name to most basketball fans nationwide, and they always create an interest when they are televised. The addition of Gonzaga makes sense when considering team and fan travel. Spokane has direct or connecting flights from nearly all western cities, including Las Vegas, Boise, SLC, Phoenix, Los Angles, and connecting flights from Denver, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. With the exception of Utah State, Gonzaga would be as close or closer to MWC schools than other programs who have been proposed as expansion candidates located in the Portland, Seattle or Denver areas.
Well, that's my take on what should be a no-brainer for conference expansion. Now what's yours?