18 months after inviting BYU to join the West Coast Conference, the league has expanded again. In a statement released Wednesday the WCC announced the University of the Pacific has accepted an invitation to re-join the conference it helped create in 1952.
"We are pleased to welcome back the University of the Pacific as the 10th member of the West Coast Conference," Saint Mary's College President and WCC Presidents' Council Chair Brother Ronald Gallagher, F.S.C., Ph.D, said in a statement released to the media. "The University of the Pacific is an outstanding fit with our membership as an independent institution with a strong academic reputation and rich athletic history. It is a great opportunity to bring one of our founding members back into the Conference and once again extend our footprint into the rapidly growing markets of Sacramento, Stockton and the Central Valley."
"Pacific brings to the West Coast Conference a strong geographical rival with excellent on-campus facilities and a recent history of athletic success in sports that are priorities for the WCC," WCC Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich added.
"We feel that Pacific is coming home by joining the WCC, where we have such a rich history," said Ted Leland, Ph.D., Pacific Vice President for External Relations and Director of Intercollegiate Athletics. "We look forward to competing with this amazing set of institutions."
Pacific was one of the five founding members of the WCC, joined at that time by Santa Clara, San Francisco, Saint Mary's and San Jose State.
Pacific left the WCC for the PCAA (later the Big West) in 1971, while San Jose State left for the same conference in 1969.
Before the addition of BYU in 2011, the WCC's membership had remained unchanged since 1980, when Seattle left the conference to become an NAIA independent. Seattle has since returned to the NCAA, transitioning from Division 2 to Division 1, with membership in the WAC scheduled to take effect in 2012-13. Seattle is currently an affiliate member of the WCC in women's golf, and had it not been ticketed for the WAC, would ostensibly have been a WCC expansion candidate.
Pacific (like Seattle) fits the West Coast Conference membership profile, as a private, faith-based or religiously-affiliated institution. Pacific was founded by Methodist ministers, and remains affiliated with the Methodist Church. The current WCC membership is comprised of seven Catholic (including four Jesuit Catholic) schools, one LDS institution and one affiliated with the Churches of Christ (Pepperdine).
The addition of Pacific would create a ten-team WCC, and a likely return to the league's previous "travel partner" scheduling protocol, which was modified with BYU's entrance.
In 2011-12, the nine-team schedule broke up travel partners and created an unusual fixture list, with BYU playing certain teams twice in two weeks, while going up to five or six weeks between meetings with other league opponents. BYU played two teams (USD and LMU) twice in the first eight games of WCC play, and two teams (Portland and Gonzaga) twice in the back half of conference competition.
While TV considerations had a hand in the schedule quirks, it was a general consensus among coaches that a ninth team had created an undesirable scheduling situation; a return to "even number" membership would create more uniformity.
BYU last played Pacific on the hardwoods in 1996; the Tigers are coached by Bob Thomason, who will be entering his 25th season with the Tigers in 2012-13. Pacific has made recent NCAA Tournament appearances in 1997, 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Pacific's AD is school vice-president Ted Leland, who was the AD at Stanford when BYU AD Tom Holmoe coached there; Holmoe has in the past recognized Leland as an administrative mentor. Leland assumed AD responsibilities in July 2011, starting a two-year period of athletics oversight; at the end of this tenure, the school says Leland "will resume full-time duties as vice president for External Relations and conduct a search for a new athletics director."
Leland was also an Associate AD at Houston when BYU head basketball coach Dave Rose was playing for UH in the school's Phi Slamma Jamma days of the early 80s.
The seating capacity of 6,150 at Pacific's Alex G. Spanos Center almost mirrors that of the school's undergraduate/postgraduate student population. The Spanos Center would be second to BYU's Marriott Center in WCC venue capacity (Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center seats 6,000).
For some, the subtext to the WCC's expansion is the continued presence of BYU in the conference realignment rumor mill. Those who project or hope that a Big 12 invitation is forthcoming for BYU may view the WCC's move as preparatory and preliminary to any future BYU departure.
League commissioner Jamie Zaninovich has previously stated that he is well aware of the dynamics involving high- level football-playing institutions like BYU, and would never stand in the way of such a school improving its situation. Zaninovich told ESPN "if the Cougars did want to leave, they wouldn't get held up by the WCC."
The WCC was an extremely stable league before the addition of BYU, and the conference would remain so were BYU ever to alter its plans. Pacific always made a great deal of sense as an expansion candidate, with or without BYU in the picture. WCC expansion efforts may or may not be conducted with an eye toward the BCS/realignment shuffle, but even in the absence of clear indications the Big 12 is ready to deal, the timing of this latest move has led some to conclude that the plates will soon be shifting again.
That said, as a home for most of its NCAA-sanctioned sports, the West Coast Conference has appeared to me an ideal partner for BYU. Any future situation that would necessitate the school's departure will have to be equally ideal and relatively complication-free. Whether the Big 12 or anyone else could offer such a situation remains the only relevant question.
For today, the story is BYU's league expanding from nine teams to ten, and the projected return to travel pairs and basketball scheduling harmony. Additionally, a sixth softball-playing member (which Pacific would be) could mean the WCC introduces that sport to its lineup.
And for today, that's a story that doesn't require a crystal ball.
Photo courtesy West Coast Conference