As the West Coast Conference tournament tips off this week at Orleans Arena, it marks the end of an era for BYU — and for the league.
The Cougars are moving on to the Big 12 in 2023-24.
“Our experience as a partner in the WCC was rewarding and a very important time for us that helped us continue building our brand that enabled us to be invited into the Big 12,” said BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe.
“You try to make your way by winning the conference tournament and it’s amazing how consistent those two teams have been in the tournament also. There’s not a lot of upsets in the WCC, that’s for sure.” — former BYU coach Dave Rose on Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s
During BYU’s 12 seasons in the WCC, it went through a coaching change, from Dave Rose to Mark Pope; survived a pandemic and a canceled NCAA Tournament; was punished with controversial NCAA sanctions; made national headlines by signing 7-foot-3-inch Purdue transfer Matt Haarms; and saw Kyle Collinsworth become the NCAA’s all-time triple-double king — among many other things.
One thing the Cougars didn’t accomplish in the WCC was win a championship (though they have one last chance this year as the No. 5 seed). That remains perhaps the biggest surprise regarding BYU’s WCC experience.
“No, I don’t think we could have imagined that. I think we went into the league with a real sense of urgency and confidence,” Rose said recently. “But the key to BYU’s success and the issue with BYU’s struggles to win the league has been consistency. You drop a game or two in that league and if it’s not Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s, it’s almost impossible to win that league because of how consistent Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s have been.
“You try to make your way by winning the conference tournament and it’s amazing how consistent those two teams have been in the tournament also. There’s not a lot of upsets in the WCC, that’s for sure.”
Joining the WCC
Let’s go back in time and examine what led to BYU joining the WCC in the first place.
With the landscape changing quickly in college athletics, including rival Utah jumping from the Mountain West Conference to the Pac-12, BYU was also looking for a change.
In August 2010, the Cougars announced that the football program was going independent, with most of the other sports going to the WCC.
But it wasn’t as simple as that.
“That was quite an up-and-down time,” Rose recalled.
Earlier that summer, Rose attended a meeting on campus where he and other BYU coaches were told their programs would be rejoining the Western Athletic Conference. The move was being done quietly behind the scenes and they were told an announcement was forthcoming.
But when word leaked out about BYU’s imminent departure, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson “pulled a fast one and invited half the WAC to the Mountain West and destroyed that league,” Rose said. “That didn’t give us a place to go.”
With the plan to go to the WAC thwarted, BYU arranged with the WCC to become part of that league in 2011-12.
When Rose heard that, the first thing he thought of was the fact that Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his wife, Marcy, had invited Rose and his wife to be a keynote speaker at a gala in Spokane to raise money for cancer research.
“We had committed to go to that. At the time, we had no idea we would be changing leagues,” Rose said. “So when they told me that we’d be in that league, that assignment took on a different meaning because I knew I’d be going up there to speak. That was pretty strange. That’s one of the things I remember the most.”
Tyler Haws, who became BYU’s all-time leading scorer during the school’s time in the WCC, played for the Cougars as a freshman in the Mountain West before leaving on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Philippines.
That’s where Haws learned about the basketball program’s change of address.
“It was a little weird and kind of surprising,” he said. “The only thing I knew about college basketball was going to The Pit at New Mexico and going to Viejas (Arena) at San Diego State and playing at UNLV, in big venues. That’s what I was used to.”
And, of course, at the time, he didn’t know much about the WCC.
For Rose, it was quite a change going from the Mountain West to the WCC, but he was grateful to the conference for welcoming the Cougars.
“I appreciate the fact that we found a very good, competitive league that we could fall into, knowing our football team was going to do what they did,” he said. “Independence seemed like the best thing for them. We had to figure out what was going to happen to the other sports.
“It takes a lot of faith or guts or determination or whatever to allow a school that’s five times the size of most of the other schools in student population to come into their conference and have us try to fit.”
‘Awakening a beast’
As fate would have it, the season before BYU joined the WCC, the Cougars, led by consensus national player of the year Jimmer Fredette, played the league’s top two teams — Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.
BYU edged Saint Mary’s in the South Padre Island Invitational championship game by one point. Then in the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars beat Gonzaga in Denver to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.
For the Zags and the Gaels, those games made them realize they needed to upgrade their already successful programs.
Rose has talked to Few and Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett about that period.
“They’ve told me many times, within the last few weeks, that us coming into the league, how much better it made their two programs because we had just beaten them before we went into the league,” Rose said. “They made a commitment to upgrade their programs, their recruiting budgets, their travel budgets, their assistant coaches budgets.
“I’ve had conversations with those guys quite a few times. They kind of always thanked me and us for coming into the league because it really had an impact on them as far as helping them increase their commitment to be good. And they’ve been good, that’s for sure.”
Indeed, Gonzaga has reached the Sweet 16 seven straight seasons, including a pair of Final Fours and two championship game appearances. The Zags have been ranked No. 1 for numerous weeks in recent years.
“Gonzaga has turned into a national powerhouse,” Haws said. “The run they’ve had the last seven or eight years, and even longer than that. It really started when Jimmer beat Gonzaga. Maybe we blame Jimmer for awakening the beast. Gonzaga’s definitely made BYU better and the same thing with Saint Mary’s. Those have been fun rivalries that have evolved. It’s been good for BYU.”
Haws returned from his mission to play in a new league and he had to adjust.
“Coming back was different. It’s just a different challenge, I guess. You shift your mindset to a new challenge,” he said. “I was so concerned about getting my body back and being able to play college basketball again. I knew there would be an opportunity to play against high-level talent and competition. That was definitely there in the West Coast Conference.”
Recruiting impact on BYU
During its time in the WCC, BYU pursued two highly touted Latter-day Saint basketball players, and future NBA players, Jabari Parker and Frank Jackson. Parker narrowed his final list of schools to five and one of them was BYU. He ended up signing with Duke.
Jackson originally committed to the Cougars, then ended up also signing with Duke.
Perhaps Parker and Jackson would have picked Duke regardless of the conference BYU belonged to.
But BYU’s membership in the WCC, and its small gyms, did affect recruiting.
“It had an impact because we seemed to spend a lot more time in our recruiting efforts talking about the league. With the Mountain West Conference, we didn’t spend that much time talking about it,” Rose said. “The one thing about the Mountain West, you were playing in arenas that were pretty much full everywhere you went. The kids knew that.
“Basically, the knock against the WCC is, you’re playing in smaller gyms. I don’t know if you’re trying to defend it, but you’re always talking about it,” Rose continued. “It’s always a subject that the parents or high school coaches wanted to talk about. They always wanted to talk about the league. We didn’t seem to have that many conversations about the league when we were in the Mountain West.”
Lasting impressions of BYU’s time in the WCC
The “Voice of the Cougars,” Greg Wrubell, called almost every game that BYU played in the WCC.
“What stands out to me most from BYU’s time in the West Coast Conference is how after decades filled with championship seasons in the WAC and MWC, BYU never contended for a title in the WCC,” he said. “In 12 seasons, BYU never came closer than within two games of the regular-season league champion, finishing second five times and third five times.
“What looked like a promising BYU-Gonzaga rivalry upon BYU’s entry into the league turned into 12 seasons of Gonzaga dominance; the Zags won 18 of 24 regular-season meetings and all six WCC tournament matchups. Gonzaga finished ahead of BYU in all 12 seasons of BYU’s league membership, with the Zags capturing 10 regular-season titles (pending 2022-23 finish) and nine WCC tourney titles.”
Meanwhile, Wrubell identified the main difference between BYU and Gonzaga.
“BYU consistently drew large and energized pro-BYU crowds in every WCC away venue, including some of the smaller venues in college basketball, but every WCC team could claim multiple wins over BYU on their home floors,” Wrubell said. “Whereas Gonzaga almost never ‘slipped up’ on the WCC road, BYU encountered stumbling blocks in every WCC venue.
“BYU’s 12-season WCC journey was an up-and-down grind, with games against Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s in particular serving as primers of sorts for the Big 12 battles ahead. BYU’s membership coincided and perhaps contributed to Gonzaga’s rise to the status of a national powerhouse, so it’s not surprising that the Zags were so dominant.”
Haws said the WCC is underrated nationally.
“There are really good teams and players that come out of this conference. I can think of guys that are still playing pro ball that I’ve played against — Johnny Dee, Kevin Pangos, Kelly Olynyk, Matthew Dellavedova, Stephen Holt, Jared Brownridge, Anthony Ireland. The list goes on and on,” he said. “It’s an underrated conference. Every year, there are teams that surprise people.
“Santa Clara is a good example of that this year. They’re good. … It’s an up-and-coming league and it gets better every year,” he continued. “It’s been a stepping stone for BYU. With football moving to independence, it was a strategic move that turned out better than people were thinking.
“People were a little deflated moving away from the Mountain West Conference. But as far as a basketball conference in the West, it’s really good. … It’s been good for BYU. We would have loved to have won a conference championship. That’s something that will be painful looking back that we didn’t win one.”
Rose’s unique perspective
Now that he’s been removed from coaching for four years, Rose has a different perspective than he used to have when he was in the heat of the battle in the WCC race every season.
After he retired, Rose has experienced some health issues, including a heart attack and a stroke. Those competitors became allies.
“I’ve sat back for four seasons now and watched it and I appreciate what Gonzaga’s done with what they have and Saint Mary’s has with what they have,” he said. “I’m good friends with those guys, Mark Few and Randy Bennett. When I got sick the last time and had spent serious time in the hospital with home recovery, I’d get phone calls and texts from those guys. They helped me through a very difficult time and they’ve become good friends of mine.”
As Wrubell pointed out, BYU fans, particularly in California, turned out in droves to various WCC venues.
Taking advantage of the demand, WCC schools were known to double the prices of tickets when the Cougars came to town. Sometimes, BYU fans would take over an opposing arena, much to the chagrin of the hometown teams.
“There were tickets available,” Rose said. “The LDS population would show up.”
Rose appreciated the loyal support of BYU fans at places like Firestone Fieldhouse (Pepperdine), Leavey Center (Santa Clara), Jenny Craig Pavilion (San Diego), Gersten Pavilion (Loyola Marymount), War Memorial Gym (San Francisco), Spanos Center (Pacific), University Credit Union Pavilion (Saint Mary’s) and the Chiles Center (Portland).
“That’s probably my fondest memory of changing leagues,” Rose said. “Being in that league and having it mostly in northern and southern California, the LDS population in that area, especially the first four or five years, it was amazing.”
In the Mountain West days, most of the programs had large arenas with big crowds, making it difficult for BYU fans to attend, let alone be heard.
One exception, Rose noted, was TCU, which drew little support then. Now, the Horned Frogs are in the Big 12 and they draw big crowds. In the future, the Cougars will play TCU again in Fort Worth.
Yes, much has changed for both BYU and TCU over the last 12 years. With their period in the WCC almost complete, and numerous colorful chapters in the history books, the Cougars are eager to enter a new era in the Big 12.