Critical for Seattle University's success as it steps from NCAA Division II to Division I athletics is persuading the West Coast Conference to allow it membership.

Share story

The mission for Seattle University athletics in the next couple years is simple — prove to the West Coast Conference that it is worthy of membership.

Seattle U. considers itself a perfect partner for the private-school WCC, where seven of eight members are Catholic institutions. The WCC is the conference Seattle U. left in 1980 when it dropped Division I athletics, citing financial burdens and philosophical problems with D-I sports in an educational environment.

Now Seattle U. can’t get back into the conference after deciding to take the plunge and move back into the NCAA’s top level of competition. They’ll have to do so as an independent school, without WCC’s alliance. The conference won’t accept them yet.

“Get established, show some success, and we’ll revisit it,” said athletic director Mike Roth of Gonzaga, a WCC basketball powerhouse in Spokane.

Seattle U. now has to demonstrate that it belongs in the WCC by showing it has the right stuff to hold its own in D-I. The alternatives for Seattle U. aren’t appealing.

Life as a D-I independent is expensive — the athletic budget increased from $4 million to $9 million, with almost all the money from school coffers. It is also unsatisfying, particularly during January and February when other schools are involved in basketball conference play.

And Seattle U., which doesn’t play football and is a private, Catholic institution tucked in the country’s northwest corner, would appear to be an awkward fit in any conference other than the WCC.

The decision to leave D-I nearly 30 years ago still rankles many alums, whose memories include Elgin Baylor leading SU to the NCAA championship game against Kentucky in 1958. Those alums have watched with envy as Gonzaga has become a national basketball darling the past decade.

Why move back to Division I now?

The president of Seattle U., Father Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., has said the decision to return to D-I “is fundamentally a decision about our institutional identity.”

Athletic director Bill Hogan wants to bring the university’s athletics to the same level as its academics.

“Every week you turn around and we get another national honor for something academically,” said Hogan. “We have an outstanding university, and athletics needs to be at a higher level of national acclaim, just like our school.”

Seattle U., where enrollment was 7,529 this past year and tuition will be $28,260 this fall, is ranked sixth in the West by U.S. News & World Report in the category known as “regional universities.”

D-I sports, particularly a successful men’s basketball team, could create the same electricity Gonzaga generates for a big game on ESPN.

Hogan is also quick to say that SU “can’t put all our eggs in one basket” regarding the WCC. “You’d be surprised how things can change over the course of years,” he said, citing the reconfiguration of leagues such as the Big East.

The Sonics are leaving town, and Seattle U’s Redhawks — the nickname “Chieftains” was dropped in 2000 — will be one of two D-I teams in town, along with the Washington Huskies.

The Sonics’ exit “creates a bit of a vacuum,” said basketball coach Joe Callero, whose team is likely to play at KeyArena.

This coming school year will be a “transition” year from D-II to D-I for Seattle U., no longer a member of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference with Western Washington and Seattle Pacific. Redhawk schedules will feature many D-I opponents plus some smaller schools. In 2009-10, Seattle U. will be a D-I school with D-I schedules in all sports.

An upgrade is evident in schedules for 2008-09.

In volleyball, the Redhawks will host Oregon State on Sept. 2, a visit by a Pac-10 school that signals new respect. They will play UCLA in a Nevada tournament and will co-host a tournament with Washington.

In women’s basketball, the Redhawks will play in a UW tournament.

Hogan said the University of Washington “has been great — very supportive” about Seattle U.’s move to Division I. Hogan, 55, is a former athletic director at WCC-member San Francisco and knows the league. He acknowledges that having the Huskies as a good neighbor helps Seattle U.

The men’s basketball team, which is the marquee sport of the WCC, is entering into three-year contracts with D-I schools such as Oregon State, Fresno State and Loyola Marymount.

The Redhawks are adding baseball to make themselves appealing to the WCC but won’t start play until 2009-10. Last month, Seattle U. hired Huskies assistant Donny Harrel, 38, as head coach. Harrel gained notice for rebuilding the program at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., in the late 1990s.

Hogan said baseball may be the sport that takes the longest to get up to speed, but Harrel said a new NCAA rule could help. With the rule requiring transfers to sit out a year, his sales pitch to players is that sitting out the year before the program begins is perfect timing.

Seattle U. doesn’t have a home baseball field, and there is no room for one on the 48-acre campus on First Hill. Possibilities include Bannerwood Park in Bellevue, and Lower Woodland and remodeled Mel Olson Stadium in White Center.

The Redhawks are adding men’s and women’s golf as well and men’s and women’s tennis in 2008-09.

Seattle U. would add the nation’s 14th largest TV market, a huge plus for a conference seeking more exposure.

In basketball, a negative is that Seattle U. is likely to lose more games than it wins for years, and that will hurt opponents’ Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). The RPI gauges caliber of schedule and is a factor when the NCAA selection committee picks and seeds teams for the tournament.

Seattle U. is deficient in some facilities. It doesn’t have a track and often trains at high schools. The school is examining whether at least a short track could be added at Logan Field, site of softball.

The WCC is an eight-team league, and scheduling always is easier with an even number of teams. However, new commissioner Jamie Zaninovich said he doesn’t think his members will demand that any possible expansion be done only if two schools are added.

The only non-Catholic WCC school is Pepperdine, which is operated by the Churches of Christ. Seattle U. is Jesuit, as are four current schools in the league — Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, San Francisco, and Santa Clara.

Gonzaga is a Seattle U. ally.

“Gonzaga University and Seattle U. are sister schools in the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus,” Roth noted. “Rarely do you throw your brother out the door.”

The Seattle U. goal in the next few years is to demonstrate to Gonzaga and the other schools that the WCC would be better with the Redhawks.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Hogan said, “but it’s not like we’re light years away. We’re going to be good sooner than people think.”

Craig Smith: 206-464-8279

West Coast Conference
How Seattle U. compares with the eight current members:
School City Affiliation Enroll.
Gonzaga Spokane Catholic / Jesuit 6,700
Loyola-Marymount Los Angeles Catholic / Jesuit 8,900
Pepperdine Malibu, Calif. Churches of Christ 8,300
Portland Portland, Ore. Catholic / Holy Cross 3,500
San Diego San Diego Catholic 7,500
San Francisco San Francisco Catholic / Jesuit 8,722
Santa Clara Santa Clara, Calif. Catholic / Jesuit 8,200
St. Mary’s College Moraga, Calif. Catholic / Lasallian 4,700
Seattle U. Seattle Catholic / Jesuit 7,529