This is the first of a three part series examining whether it is time to bring back the Washington-Gonzaga series and if it were to come back, how could it be implemented in a way that satisfies both programs.
Everyone knows the history. Everyone knows the rivalry. Even Bigfoot has been asking for this series to be rekindled…
The debate has raged on-and-off since the Washington-Gonzaga series was discontinued in 2007. There have been many unsubstantiated rumors over why the series was discontinued. They range from Lorenzo Romar wanting more flexibility to schedule nationally to a personal feud between Romar and Gonzaga coach Mark Few. Gonzaga fans like to point out that the Huskies lost eight of the last nine games to Gonzaga in the series and say Romar was just “scared.” There are others who point out legitimate financial reasons for ending the rivalry as well. Frankly speaking, playing in The Kennel with only 6,000 seats or even at Hec Ed with 10,000 does not generate the same kind of revenue that playing in a larger arena might provide.
Many have critiqued Romar’s claims of wanting to go to more of a national scheduling strategy by stating that Washington has not exactly become the national powerhouse many expected, while Gonzaga continues to schedule one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the nation while continuing to make NCAA tournaments every single year. But, others could also legitimately point out that Washington has infact gone in that national direction with games at the Maui Classic, Madison Square Garden against Duke and Marquette, games against Georgetown in Los Angeles and Kansas in Kansas City, and so forth. In addition, while Romar has not been able to land that coveted 5-star national recruit quite yet, he has been pulling players from all around the country in recent years including Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Utah, and overseas.
But, one must be objective about the overall results when determining whether discontinuing the Gonzaga series was the right decision. One of the reasons often discussed for ending the series was Gonzaga’s RPI and the overall weakness of the West Coast Conference. Since 25% of the RPI value is determined by the opponent’s opponent’s record, playing Gonzaga meant that the games they play against RPI 300+ teams would also affect the Huskies. But, let’s be honest, those reasons no longer exist…
When the Pac-10 was sending 5 to 6 teams to the NCAA tournament and 9 teams into post-season play, while only one team from the WCC made the Big Dance, that might have been a legitimate concern. Sure Gonzaga scheduled tough in November and December, but that was because their conference was so weak that they needed that RPI boost to have any hope of an at-large bid. But, looking at the Pac-12 now, barely being able to send two teams for the the 2nd time in three years, while the WCC sent three teams you have to ask, who’s weaker now? The regular season champion of the Pac-12 did not even make the NCAA tournament…that’s something the WCC used to do!
The Huskies can not complain about the OOP either because when you schedule teams like Houston Baptist and Cal St Northridge, who’s scheduling weaker? Perhaps the Huskies need to stop acting like they are a national powerhouse and start worrying about their own backyard. How is it that teams like St. Mary’s and Gonzaga and San Diego State and UNLV are earning at-large bids and Top 7 seeds and the Pac-12 champions are in the NIT?
Perhaps what the Huskies need to do is get a little perspective. Maybe the best way to jump start this program back to prominence is to restart the Gonzaga series and get a real heated local rivalry going. As big as the Oregon and Washington State game are, there would be nothing bigger for this program than to beat Gonzaga and say THEY are the kings of the Pacific Northwest. While home games against Arizona and UCLA are still big, if they are not making the NCAA tournament, the luster is definitely fading from those games.
So, how do you do it?
The Huskies proposed a couple of years ago to have a 5-year series at Key Arena with both schools splitting the tickets evenly. Mark Few quickly rejected that idea saying “The chances of that happening are about the same as Big Foot having my baby.” While that proposal made sense financially, we know this series is about a lot more than money. Besides, given the struggles the Huskies have had on the road in recent years, maybe playing some games in a hostile arena would be a good idea for this program. They showed this year that they could not win games in Reno or Saint Louis. Maybe they need some extra motivation such as a big rivalry game.
Maybe these two programs are not ready for a big long-term commitment quite yet. So, perhaps they can start off with some baby-steps. Maybe just start with a home-and-home or a three year series with one in each arena and one in Key Arena split evenly. Whatever the arrangement, I believe the Huskies need something to kick start this program back into gear again.
Frankly the loyal Husky fans are getting a bit bored with yearly selection of teams like Florida Atlantic, UC Santa Barbara, and Portland State. This is particularly true when the conference season doesn’t exactly up-the-ante with games against weakened conference foes like Oregon State, USC, and Utah. This fan base needs a game they can really get excited about. Yes, bringing in a Saint Louis or a UConn is a nice first step, but having a real rivalry would make a world of difference.