Amid the firestorm last week greeting the news that Gonzaga was putting the squeeze on Washington State’s basketball schedule, GU athletic director Mike Roth observed, “Folks are making too much of it.”
You mean just because talk-radio wanted to yank Gonzaga’s accreditation and WSU fan sites exhausted the thesaurus hurling names at anything in Zag colors?
Roth should have known: This is how it is. Hardly anything inflames fans like perceived scheduling slights, because they’re about power and status and class, and those are concepts fans hold dearest.
Remember the uproar a few years ago when WSU and Washington were on the brink of signing a six-year deal that would have annually put the Apple Cup at CenturyLink Field? Coug fans reacted like the Huskies were holding hostages at Ferdinand’s, the beloved ice cream hangout.
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Or, recall when the Huskies chose to scissor an electric basketball series with Gonzaga, opting for more of a “national” (whatever that was, exactly) schedule. It was Zag fans’ turn to cry foul.
In case you missed it, after what had been a typical, home-and-home agreement for more than a decade, the Zags slipped some fine print into the last contract with WSU. Between the two Spokane/Pullman games (last season and in 2015-16), they wrote into the deal a game next season at Spokane Arena, Gonzaga-hosted and Gonzaga-profiting.
Yeah, you could call it a power play. And it pained some Zag and Cougar fans alike, inasmuch as this has been a generally friendly rivalry between comrades otherwise aligned against Darth Vader to the west.
But it’s also a pragmatic play.
Two dynamics governed what went down: Gonzaga’s nonleague scheduling is trickier than any Pac-12 team, owing to the number of tomato cans in the lower part of the West Coast Conference. And WSU has a hard time scheduling games out of league; nobody wants to come to Pullman.
With that backdrop, here’s what the Cougars have been in recent years to Gonzaga: Another low-level WCC team. Just what the Zags need, a 224-RPI-wielding outfit (that was WSU’s computer ranking in 2014, worse than anybody in the WCC) that fills the joint when you’re there and pulls a third of that when you’re not.
And if you survive the night, you’ve gained nothing.
But what about history? The series began in 1907. What about nostalgia, what about sentimentality? It’s a quaint notion, even admirable, but it didn’t apply from 1988-95, when the Cougars bailed on the series, and don’t forget, Gonzaga coach Mark Few was on the GU staff then as well.
I suspect Bill Moos, the WSU athletic director, accepts all this, even if he doesn’t like it.
Remember, it was Moos, who, back in 2010, cast a key vote in Pac-12 division alignment that helped put Stanford and California in the Pac-12 North while maintaining those schools’ rivalries with the Los Angeles programs. He recognized that anything that made it tougher for Stanford and Cal to win the division made it easier for his school.
He was doing what he should have been doing, looking out for No. 1, and similarly, I’m sure he realizes it’s not Gonzaga’s job to subsidize WSU’s nonleague schedule. But even as fans demanded he surrender his alumni card, he was smart to salvage the series, buying time for the Cougs to get better.
Besides, even if this one ends up on Gonzaga’s season-ticket package, there will be 6,000-7,000 available seats, and ticket windows will be happy to accept WSU money. I think a part of Moos doesn’t mind challenging Cougar fans in Spokane.
“We have to have Spokane,” Moos told me last week. “In football, there are three Pac-12 schools in the Northwest that depend on fans an hour and a half to two hours away to fill their venue.
“Two of them are doing it, and we’re not.”
This saga is incomplete until we see what happens when the three-year deal runs out. Few and new WSU coach Ernie Kent have a chilly relationship, and that could play into the future.
Of potentially more import is the détente that appears to have come to the cold war between Washington and Gonzaga, and they might resume relations in 2015-16. The guess here is that it’s unlikely Gonzaga plays both schools on a continuing basis.
Whatever happens, that should be enough time for fans to regenerate a fresh supply of vitriol.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org