by Chris Foss
I’ve been a spoiled sports fan: since my high school days ended, I’ve almost always attended big college and professional games in big, cutting-edge facilities. On December 3, I attended my first athletic event as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Portland, watching the Pilots’ men’s basketball team take on my old team, the Colorado Buffaloes, in the humble Chiles Center. Granted, the Chiles Center is no little gymnasium, but at 4,852 seats, it is a modest wooden dome in the middle of UP’s picturesque campus on a bluff in Northeast Portland. UP belongs to the West Coast Conference, a mid-major league consisting almost entirely of small liberal arts colleges and universities. As I’ve been getting acquainted with UP over the last few months, I’ve found myself wondering: what is the WCC, and why should I care? Why should college sports fans in general care about this and other mid-major conferences?
If you know anything about the WCC, all you probably know is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs’ men’s basketball team is on an 18-year (and counting) streak of making the NCAA tournament. The Pilots’ new coach, however, is a name you might recognize—Terry Porter, a 17-year NBA player and longtime NBA assistant and head coach with the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, Phoenix Suns, and Minnesota Timberwolves. Their most famous alum, meanwhile, is Erik Spoelstra, and all he did was coach LeBron James to his first NBA title. There’s some interesting history, then, that you might want to check out in one of NCAA Division I’s obscure mid-majors.
The WCC was born in 1952 as the California Basketball Association. As it does now, the conference consisted of relatively small religious schools—College of the Pacific, Saint Mary’s College, University of San Francisco, San Jose State University, and Santa Clara University. By the time Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, and Fresno State joined the conference five years later and it was renamed the West Coast Athletic Conference, it had reshaped the face of college basketball, thanks to San Francisco’s Bill Russell.
Before embarking on a remarkable career that saw him win Olympic gold and 11 of 13 possible NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, Russell averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds per game and propelled the Dons to 60 consecutive wins between Dec. 17, 1954 and Dec, 14, 1956, a streak only surpassed by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Russell teamed with K.C. Jones, another future Celtics great, to win the 1955 and 1956 NCAA championships, earning the tournament’s most outstanding player award in 1955. Russell would go on to transform the NBA, but oddly his play did not do the same for the fledgling WCAC, which diminished in stature in the decades after his career. Over the years, Fresno State departed, and UNLV arrived and then departed; thus the conference consisted strictly of small schools when it became the WCC in 1989.
The emergence of Gonzaga and St. Mary’s in men’s basketball, and the University of Portland in women’s soccer, should have put the WCC on the map since the start of the new millennium. Gonzaga has not missed an NCAA tournament since 1998 under the consistent direction of head coach Mark Few. During the 2012-13 season, the Bulldogs briefly reached the top of the AP rankings, and in 2015 they made it to the Elite Eight before bowing out. In the Few years Gonzaga has posted a very respectable 24-18 record in the tournament.
The Bulldogs’ WCC dominance was challenged for many years by the St. Mary’s Gaels. Despite playing in the tiny (3,500-seat) McKeon Pavilion, the Gaels made five NCAA tournaments between 2005 and 2013 under another long-time coach, Randy Bennett. During Bennett’s run, St. Mary’s became famous for its “Australian pipeline”, which produced two key cogs on NBA champions in Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavadova. Although their tournament record has not been as good as Gonzaga’s, the Gaels made one Sweet Sixteen in 2010. NCAA probation has kept the Gaels out of tournament eligibility since 2013, but last year they shocked Gonzaga by winning the WCC regular season championship.
In addition to men’s basketball, the league has been successful in women’s soccer over the years. The University of Portland women’s soccer produced famous Olympics and pro players during the 1990s and 2000s despite going up against much bigger Division I soccer powers, such as North Carolina (discussed in an earlier Tattered Pennant article), for top recruits. Furthermore, whereas Pilots’ men’s basketball only won the WCC once (in 1996), women’s soccer racked up 13 WCC titles and two NCAA women’s soccer championships. The stewardship of the late Clive Charles, a well-regarded player and coach who cut his teeth in English soccer, was crucial to the success of the Pilots’ soccer program. Soccer fans may be familiar with the names Shannon MacMillan, Tiffany Milbrett, Megan Rapinoe, Sophie Schmidt, and Christine Sinclair, but did you know they all played for the Pilots? Beyond soccer and basketball, the men’s cross country team has racked up an astounding 34 of a possible 40 WCC titles since joining the conference in 1976.
So why is the WCC not better known to sports fans? Part of the problem in terms of basketball may be that very few, if any, of its players go on to fame beyond their college years. The Australian pipeline from St. Mary’s has yielded solid NBA role players, but no stars. Gonzaga’s players have generally fared poorly as well. John Stockton is an exception, interestingly, since his early-80’s Bulldogs never made the NCAA tournament. Dan Dickau, Ronny Turiaf, and Adam Morrison played a few years in the NBA, but most others have not gone on to the pros. The jury is out on recent players such as Kelly Olynyk. It will be interesting to see what happens with ex-Zag Domantas Sabonis, who is playing for Oklahoma City; Sabonis is the son of longtime ex-Trail Blazer and Basketball Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis.
What can the WCC do to take the next step and become more than just a mid-major power? BYU’s arrival in 2011 did not change the conference’s more religiously-tilted orientation, but with 32,955 students (compared to the next-largest WCC school, Loyola Marymount, with 9,015), BYU towers over the other schools. Could it propel the WCC to rival the Pac-12 or other mid-major conferences in the West? It seems reasonable to expect, unfortunately, that someday BYU will either dominate its smaller rivals like UP or St. Mary’s, or leave the conference for greener pastures, perhaps either the Pac-12 or the Big 12.
On the other hand, there are benefits to attending sporting events at smaller, less-powerful schools. It was a breeze to go into the Chiles Center and find general admission bleacher seats for men’s basketball. The arena filled to about ¾ capacity, and the Pilots acquitted themselves well for 30 minutes before falling 76-63 to the Pac-12’s Buffaloes. The game was fun and competitive, but one did not feel the pressure of an NBA game or a major conference matchup. Some nights, even for the sports fan, that kind of a matchup hits the spot. The WCC has plenty of big games and a couple of big teams, and a history that enriches our understanding of college sports. But it’s nice, too, to be able to stroll in just before tipoff, easily find a seat, kick your feet up, and just have a fun night of watching sports.
CURRENT WCC MEMBERS
San Jose State
University of Nevada-Reno
Jason Bay (Gonzaga)
Pete Carroll (Pacific)
Bill Cartwright (San Francisco)
Brandi Chastain (Santa Clara)
Theo Epstein (San Diego—law school)
Dennis Johnson (Pepperdine)
 http://www.nba.com/history/players/russell_bio.html. Russell’s official NBA.com bio claims his Dons “only” won 56 consecutive games.
 Not a familiar name, but a former NBA coach and player who briefly shined when he anchored the frontline during the first Chicago Bulls three-peat during the 1990s.