For our next realignment article, we take a deeper dive into the best mid-to-high major basketball program and perennial national title contender Gonzaga. The Bulldogs would wield quite a bit of bargaining power if they were to leave the West Coast Conference and that provides for some interesting possibilities, which we will explore below. We previously mentioned Gonzaga would have a standalone discussion in a previous article on frequent March Madness participants that don’t currently have a football program.
Gonzaga has been mentioned a few times in the rumor mill over the past few months as a potential target and this will be an in-depth look at several different conferences. Gonzaga being linked to a new conference is hardly surprising given how well the basketball program has performed over the last two decades. However, as with any school, there are also some drawbacks including the lack of a football program for some potential destinations.
A friendly disclaimer for this article: we do not have any inside information or sources. We are simply pursuing a thought exercise within this post as it relates to realignment. We hope to bring up a few salient points in the event of a realignment move for Gonzaga. Without further ado, let’s take a look at Gonzaga’s history on and off the court.
Gonzaga’s History and Basketball Beginnings
Gonzaga was founded in 1887 as a private Jesuit school under the name Gonzaga College in Spokane, Washington. The school became known as Gonzaga University starting in 1912 when it began offering a 3-year law program. Gonzaga’s first season on the basketball court was in the 1907-08 academic year when they competed as an independent team. They sponsored football from 1892 through the 1941 season where they made exactly 1 bowl game as an independent in 1922 (a 21-13 loss to West Virginia in the San Diego East-West Christmas Classic).
Gonzaga’s basketball program did not join a conference until 1963 when they became members of the Big Sky Conference. The Bulldogs won back-to-back regular-season titles in 1965-66 and 1966-67 but failed to qualify for their first NCAA Tournament either season.
Gonzaga remained in the Big Sky until 1979 when the opted to join the West Coast Conference (then known as the West Coast Athletic Conference from 1957 until 1989). The Bulldogs were never anything more than an above-average basketball program until the mid-1990s. They made their first postseason appearance in 1994 when they played in the NIT. A year later, they broke through for the first NCAA Tournament appearance although they lost as the #14 seed in the West Region’s first-round matchup against Maryland, 87-63.
Gonzaga would return to the NIT in 1996 but was eliminated after a first-round loss. Little did the school and college basketball world know what was to come.
The 1999 Cinderella Run and Mark Few’s Dominance of the WCC
In 1998, Gonzaga made a 3rd NIT appearance in 5 seasons but that would be the last NIT game as of 2022. The 1999 season catapulted the school onto the national stage with three consecutive upsets as the #10 seed over #7 Minnesota, #2 Stanford, and #6 Florida. The Bulldogs fell to #1 seed and eventual national champion Connecticut in the Elite Eight, 67-62. Head coach Dan Monson struck while the iron was hot and jumped to a new gig at Minnesota, a team he saw up close in the first-round victory. Taking over for Monson was assistant Mark Few, who had been with the program since 1989 when he began his collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant.
Mark Few was able to not only continue that magical run of 1999 but he’s taken Gonzaga to even greater heights. The Bulldogs have made every NCAA Tournament under Few’s reign (excluding 2020 when the tournament was canceled although they won the WCC Tournament and its automatic qualifying bid) and there’s only one bar left to hurdle. In all, Gonzaga has made 23 consecutive NCAA Tournaments as of 2022.
Under Mark Few, there have been 2 distinct eras: the good, but not great teams and the national title-contending teams. Between 2000 and 2014, Gonzaga never made it beyond the Sweet Sixteen and couldn’t seem to break through that ceiling. While many schools – including some Power 5 teams – would love to be in Gonzaga’s shoes in which making the tournament and potentially having a deep run on an annual basis, this was a recurring theme for the first decade and a half. That’s why we consider these the good, but not great teams.
Since 2015, Gonzaga has never done worse than the Sweet Sixteen including making 2 national championship appearances in 2017 and 2021. They’re consistently ranked near the top of the polls and have been awarded the #1 overall seed in back-to-back tournaments for 2021 and 2022. They’ve never been closer to winning that elusive title so it’s fair to ask, what if Gonzaga decides to move on up in the college basketball conference pecking order?
We’ll start by taking a closer look at Gonzaga’s current home the West Coast Conference after we provide a bit more information on the sports offered by the school as shown below. Gonzaga does not sponsor football so that might limit the possibilities as we will discuss below. We’d be remiss to not mention the women’s basketball team which has made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2007 and have been a dominant force in the WCC much like the men’s team. The school’s baseball team has also had a resurgence recently with 4 NCAA tournament appearances since 2016.
|Men's Sports||Women's Sports|
|Cross Country||Cross Country|
|Track & Field||Track & Field|
West Coast Conference
As stated above, Gonzaga has been a member of the WCC since 1979. The conference has 10 members until 2023 when BYU will depart for the Big 12. The map below shows the 10 schools with Gonzaga in yellow, BYU in red, and the other 8 members in blue.
From a geography standpoint, there are some pros and cons for the conference and Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are the northernmost team and have only one relatively close geographical partner in Portland. However, the travel is only confined to the West coast, which will become a big factor in some of the other potential scenarios.
Looking beyond the geography aspect, there's also the fact that Gonzaga has helped elevate the WCC as a whole. Three teams were selected for the 2022 NCAA Tournament, which is tied for the most ever in the conference's history after achieving the same feat in 2008 and 2012. Gonzaga's presence alone probably makes the WCC a 2-bid league most seasons and they could certainly attract any suitors who wish to bring their basketball program to the next level.
Remaining in the WCC makes a lot of sense for Gonzaga. They've already proven they can play at the top level without being in a top conference, can attract talent from across the nation, and can have a say in how WCC approaches any realignment changes. After all, if Gonzaga doesn't like how the WCC is handling matters (realignment or otherwise), there would be no shortage of suitors for them even without a football program. There's also the loyalty angle as Gonzaga has made a wonderful home in the WCC.
One negative aspect that will impact both Gonzaga and the WCC is the departure of BYU. This will hurt the overall profile of the conference, thus hurting the chances of other schools to make the tournament with one less quality opponent. Gonzaga will also be provided 2 fewer chances at quality wins assuming BYU maintains a formidable basketball program in the Big 12.
Let's take a look at 5 other options in alphabetical order and we'll start with an off-wall scenario: the Atlantic 10. Below is a table showing the alternative conferences discussed below.
|Conference||Number of Teams (Based on 2023-24)|
We told you there'd be wild speculation and the Atlantic 10 is quite a leap on many levels. We'll start with the "why" part of the equation. First, the A10 is open to adding a 16th member per Commissioner Bernadette McGlade and Gonzaga would fit the bill nicely as they don't need to find another conference for its non-existent football program. Secondly, the basketball level would arguably be a step up from the WCC and Gonzaga's presence would catapult the entire league up on the national scale.
The chart below shows how well Gonzaga would fit in from a revenue standpoint. This chart is based on data collected at the end of the 2020-21 academic year when some sports were still impacted by the pandemic. The Zags are shown in yellow with revenues going from highest to lowest. If they joined the A10, the revenues would likely increase as the conference would be able to negotiate a better TV rights package with one of the best basketball programs in the nation.
On the other hand, it doesn't take much to see why this particular scenario makes little sense. The geography would be absolutely insane for basketball, never mind the travel for lower-profile sports, which would cause the expenses to skyrocket. The map below does a good job of letting that sink in. Note, we've included Loyola Chicago as they will be joining the A10 starting with the 2022-23 season.
Another aspect that Gonzaga may or may not care about is the public/private makeup of the conference. There would be 4 public universities in this scenario - George Mason, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and VCU - which would present a different challenge from the current all-private institutions that comprise the WCC. Overall, this seems preposterous based on travel alone but we bring this up because it will factor again for another conference that was heavily rumored to be Gonzaga's next destination. Next up, we explore the Big 12.
Getting away from the wild idea of a Washington state-based team joining a conference comprised mainly of East coast programs for a moment, we head to the middle of the country and the Big 12. The conference will be undergoing a drastic change in membership with Oklahoma and Texas leaving by 2025-26 (or earlier). To replace them, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, and Houston will come on board in 2023-24.
In terms of basketball, the Big 12 will still be excellent with Baylor, Kansas, and Texas Tech to be joined by a resurgent Houston program. That's to say nothing of the other 8 programs that are capable of being consistent NCAA tournament teams. Add Gonzaga to the mix and the Big 12 would have a strong argument for the best basketball conference in the nation. Let's take a look at the revenue chart based on the 4 new members and without Oklahoma and Texas in the mix (we're assuming they'll find a way to leave for the SEC by 2023 or 2024).
The revenues are titled so heavily against Gonzaga because they don't sponsor football and the numbers for Cincinnati and UCF are likely to increase as their own revenues will improve from better TV deals in the Big 12 compared to the AAC. Should Gonzaga consider adding football to become a more attractive school to new conferences?
Probably not because the investment for a new football stadium and facilities to compete at a Power 5 level would easily eclipse $100 million without playing a down. Spokane wouldn't be the hotbed for football and there's the question if the Big 12 would even accept a resurrected football program. Sure, Gonzaga could play several seasons at the FCS to get going but then jump all the way up to Power 5 competition? That is a very unlikely outcome.
Another aspect hurting the Gonzaga to Big 12 scenario is travel. While not as egregiously bad as the A-10 scenario, this is still pretty difficult to accept for basketball and the other sports. The map below shows Gonzaga in yellow and the Big 12 schools in blue. Please note that Oklahoma and Texas are included in red on this map but will be leaving the conference no later than 2025. As you can see, the travel would be brutal with trips to the Eastern and Southeastern parts of the country. Trips to the plain states and Texas wouldn't be as brutal but the expenses would add up quickly for non-basketball sports. The lack of football puts the dagger in this scenario while the travel puts the final nail in the coffin.
Yes, we return to the idea of Gonzaga joining a conference laden with East coast teams because this rumor was all the rage back in April 2022. Like the A10, there's a lot about this potential Big East move that makes sense. The Big East is a basketball conference and there are very few teams they can add with the national prominence of Gonzaga but also not have to worry about the football side of things. Gonzaga would be the 12th team in the Big East as well as the 11th private institution (UConn is the only public school). In addition, Gonzaga's current revenue would be in the middle of the conference as shown in the chart below.
The clear downside is the travel as the map below helps illustrate. While it wouldn't be too terrible if only one sport like basketball was involved, there are 13 other sports to consider when it comes to travel expenses. They would be quite large in this scenario unless the Big East was willing to have some sort of scheduling agreement where Gonzaga would have multiple away contests in a short period to help reduce the travel burden. Nevertheless, all the schools would be making the cross-country trip at some point.
As shown in the map above, Gonzaga sticks out like a sore thumb once again. They are well outside the geographic area and it looks very similar to the Atlantic 10 map. Speaking of the A10, this scenario is a far better fit for the Bulldogs as the Big East brings far more in terms of basketball and exposure if they were dead set on leaving the WCC. The Big East scenario seems implausible but it's probably more likely to happen than the other ones we mentioned.
Next, we move to much more geographic-friendly scenarios for Gonzaga but they are also not without drawbacks.
The fourth potential conference Gonzaga could join is the Mountain West Conference. From a geography standpoint, this one is a much better fit for the Zags and would give the MWC 12 teams in basketball. Furthermore, the lack of football is not as big of an issue as the Mountain West could remain at 12 football members with Hawaii maintaining its football-only affiliate member. The map below shows the potential membership with Gonzaga in yellow and current schools in blue.
Now, this is far more suitable if Gonzaga were to leave. From a basketball standpoint, the Zags would be the top dog and the Mountain West would be a 2-bid league every year at worst with the potential to become a 3 to 5 bid league on a consistent basis. There are some downsides to this for Gonzaga. First, they would be the only private school in the conference if they joined as all other schools are public with the exception of Air Force. Second, they would have the lowest revenues of any school in the conference if they joined as shown below. (Revenue figures for Air Force were not available).
It's not hard to imagine that Gonzaga's revenue would likely increase if they joined the Mountain West as would the other teams in the conference. Not having football would hurt them as they may not get a full share of the revenue pie though the strength of the basketball program might help in negotiations.
Another aspect worth considering that is neither a pro nor a con is Gonzaga has been rumored to be moving to the Mountain West before. In 2018, they were reportedly on the cusp of leaving the WCC for the MWC but opted to stay. There was clearly interest from both sides in 2018, which is a positive but why didn't a deal get done? That lingering question raises some concern while also showing that Gonzaga has seriously contemplated leaving in the past.
The last conference we take a look at is the Pac-12, which is wild at face value but has some merit if we take a closer look. The obvious aspects that are good for both sides are the travel and Gonzaga's basketball profile. We start by looking at the map below showing the location of each school with Gonzaga in yellow and the current Pac-12 members in blue.
From a basketball standpoint, adding Gonzaga should be a slam dunk. Gonzaga has appeared in 2 national championship games since 2017, which equals the number of Final Four appearances by Pac-12 teams during that time (Oregon in 2017 and UCLA in 2021). Those 2 title game appearances in the last 5 years equal the same number as the Pac-12 since 2000.
As we know, however, this goes far beyond the court. Gonzaga does not sponsor football, which is the main factor that matters when it comes to a Power 5 conference's realignment goals. In addition, there would likely be pushback from both Washington and Washington State on allowing the Zags to join as it would instantly put the newest team in the conference at the head of the class for basketball and give access to even more major west coast cities. (This argument is a bit tenuous as Gonzaga is probably already well-known in those areas due to its postseason performances but there's something to be said if Washington really wants to have Gonzaga's branding plastered all over metro Seattle).
Two additional factors to consider: Gonzaga is far below the revenue of the Pac-12 schools due to the lack of football and 10 of the 12 schools are public (Stanford and USC are both private institutions). Granted, Gonzaga was close to joining the MWC with 11 public schools, so perhaps this is an institutional aspect they wish to keep. As for the revenue, the chart below shows the lopsided figures for each school relative to Gonzaga.
Again, this is a similar story to previous conferences: the lack of football makes this an unlikely scenario even though basketball would improve for the conference. The behind-the-scenes politics are also likely to rear up in this scenario as Gonzaga may not be well-received by the other 2 Washington-based schools.
Summary: Big East or Bust?
If you've read all the scenarios above, there are 2 key takeaways hurting Gonzaga that we'll restate: not having football and the location is less than ideal. On the football front, there's no indication they'd want to restart football and if they did it would be a long, expensive process to get them to the Power 5 level of competition. The basketball team is the bread and butter for the school, which they recognize and what most people know about Gonzaga. However, the lack of football makes them a non-starter for most conferences, especially at the Power 5 level. Football is where the money is being made for those conferences while adding Gonzaga minimally increases the revenue and takes a share of the larger pie.
As for geography, while we're not talking about an Alaska or Hawaii-based school, the prominence of the Gonzaga basketball program narrows down the options they are likely to pursue or be considered for. Above, we listed both the Atlantic 10 and Big East as potential destinations but the latter seems far more likely even if you ignore the rumors from April 2022. The Big East simply offers more to Gonzaga: almost exclusively private institutions and a premier basketball conference. Would the increase in revenue be high enough to offset the cross-country travel associated with an eastern conference?
Well, the Big East is expected to receive between $6 million and $8 million per school under its next TV rights deal in 2025. The WCC as a whole generated $3.17 million in tickets, sponsorships, and TV revenue as of 2020 (see page 9). There's another $5.5 million in NCAA tournament revenues, which we do not know the exact breakdown for the WCC other than Gonzaga has a favorable agreement. Finally, we must consider the revenues generated by previous NCAA Tournaments in which Gonzaga was the main driver but, again, we don't know how the revenue distribution is set up and the payouts are spread over many years.
If Gonzaga left, they'd be forfeiting the previous NCAA Tournament unit payouts on top of an exit fee from the WCC. (BYU will pay $500,000 to the WCC to leave and join the Big 12. We don't know if that figure would be higher for Gonzaga given their preferential revenue distributions from the conference).
The rub in all this for Gonzaga's realignment options is similar across the board: every conference wants the basketball program but few or none of the other sports from a logistical perspective. Which conferences would be willing to take Gonzaga's soccer and volleyball teams but not the biggest one? Sure, there could be some creative solutions especially if Gonzaga were willing to share some revenue to make it work for both parties but that's unlikely because it undermines the realignment goals for both the school and conferences.
That puts us back at square one with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. They've already shown they can compete for national titles and top recruits in the WCC. Do they feel a need to move to a new conference that puts them on a higher basketball level? Are they seeking additional revenue, which would need to be above and beyond the increases for additional travel? Do they just want a new challenge? Maybe there's a different angle for Gonzaga to pursue if they are to remain in the WCC long-term that will allow them to leverage the strength of the basketball program without having to switch conferences.
In the world of realignment, it can be difficult to tell which domino is next to fall and how loud it will be. Perhaps Gonzaga will be the next domino or maybe we won't see it fall for many years.
Photo courtesy of Michael Conroy/Associated Press