Kiszla: Pac-12, Colorado must add Gonzaga basketball to conference

With the cool kids in California bolting the Pac-12 Conference, the CU Buffs need a new buddy to keep the conference relevant and solvent.

Enter Gonzaga. Please. The Pac-12 needs to make the Zags a membership offer they can’t refuse.

During a time of crazy upheaval in college athletics, where it’s all about the Benjamins and brand names rule, why hasn’t the ailing Pac-12 scooped up the Gonzaga hoops program to restore luster to a conference that has seen better days?

“That’s a question for them, not for me,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said Thursday when I asked about the possibility of the Zags moving on from the West Coast Conference to a league desperately in need of an injection of a big-name brand after losing UCLA and USC to the Big Ten.

OK, consider this a direct plea to Commissioner George Kliavkoff and self-righteous presidents of the universities remaining in a league formerly known as the conference of champions:

Are you too good academically for Gonzaga? Are the Huskies and Cougars afraid the feisty Zags might become the big dawg within the state of Washington? Does the Pac-12 have a problem with a school that has a proud religious tradition?

The most reasonable objection to the Zags as a member of the Pac-12 boils down to whether the dollars make sense. Gonzaga doesn’t field a football team, and for all the hoopla surrounding March Madness, football is the major driver of television rights revenue.

In my role as Mr. Sunshine, however, I always prefer to look on the bright side. While Tad Boyle and his CU hoops squad would have a new rival hard to beat in either Boulder or Spokane, at least the Buffs wouldn’t have to be worried about getting embarrassed by the Zags at Folsom Field.

If the Pac-12 seriously talked about adding Gonzaga as an associate member, Few gave the impression the Zags would seriously listen.

“We’re always looking at what’s best for Gonzaga,” said Few, who certainly has heard the Zags mentioned as a possible fit for the Big 12 and the Big East, as well as the Pac-12.

“How do we grow? We’ve got to measure out all these opportunities that are out there and figure out what’s the best path moving forward to keep our program on the highest national level, which is where we’re at.”

America loves the Zags, who have spent the past 25 years proving the dream of upward mobility and unlimited possibility is still alive and well in this country. And the Zags love the Rocky Mountains, where they are playing NCAA tourney games in Denver for the third time in the past dozen years.

With the solvency of what remains of the Pac-12 possibly hanging on the outcome of negotiations for a new broadcast package unlikely to give the Buffs more than roughly 50% of the annual $60 million windfall enjoyed by Big Ten schools, Gonzaga probably can’t make a significant impact on conference finances.

With the pending departure of UCLA and its basketball tradition to the Big Ten, however, adding the Zags could allow the Pac-12 to tell the Bruins to enjoy freezing their booty on winter road trips to Iowa City and Minneapolis.

Only Kansas and Michigan State own a current streak of tournament appearances longer than the 24-year run Gonzaga is now on. The Zags have done it in the West Coast Conference, where St. Mary’s, not UCLA or UConn, has been their primary rival.

“The WCC has been great for us because it hasn’t gotten in our way. The best thing we’ve done over the years is – even back to ‘99 – we wanted to stay in growth mode. We did not want to just be a one-hit wonder. I was always pushing and pushing and pushing,” Few said.

“It’s been a challenge. Within the last year, this might be some of the greatest challenges we’re facing with the (transfer) portal and NIL (name, image likeness), and just the lack of direction and rules and regulations … especially from a program that likes to follow rules and regulations.”

At age 60, when there’s a powerful temptation for a successful coach to look beyond the next game and start thinking about his legacy, maybe it’s time for Few to look beyond what he has built with 685 victories at Gonzaga. How can the program roll on when Few eventually retires and moves on?

The Zags need a new frontier to conquer.

The Pac-12 is desperate to redefine itself.

Let’s make a deal.

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