We’ve been hearing for years about what it’s like on the road for Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. So I decided to find out for myself. Well, myself and my wife. We spent part of a long weekend in the Bay Area attending both GU games at Santa Clara and San Francisco.
I’d never seen a game in either house. Interviewed Steve Nash for a preseason piece back in the mid-‘90s in the SCU gym, but that’s it.
It was different. Different in just about every way imaginable, before you even get in the door.
You know already the fuss Gonzaga coach Mark Few raised a couple of seasons ago when he asked why more WCC programs weren’t plunging into facilities improvements the cash the Zags were earning for league members with their success in NCAA tournaments. Well, there’s another marker of how Gonzaga affects the league: The cost of seeing the Zags play those teams on the road.
At Santa Clara, you can’t merely buy a general-admission ticket. The Gonzaga game is “bundled” with another game – ours with Portland’s at SCU later this month – so you have to purchase two games, and you can donate the second one to charity. Those extra tickets were $13 apiece. Not a huge outlay, but an add-on.
At USF, War Memorial Gym is so small – 3,005 capacity, compared to 4,700 at Santa Clara – that the “surcharge” comes in another form. As in, we (and a lot of other people there following Gonzaga) paid $75 for a general-admission seat. Yes, $75. They can get it, so they charge it. And truth be told, the place is so small, that gets you a good seat.
Most noticeable thing about the atmosphere in these places? The predominance, or lack of, the pep band. Funny thing: We got into a discussion about, believe it or not, whether there had been a pep band at Santa Clara (in a game we’d witnessed from high up), and sure enough, there was. Two days later, at USF, the band was tucked up in a corner of the gym. But inscrutably, it didn’t play. The members sat sort of forlornly with their instruments, and might have played four times the entire 2 ½ hours-plus of pregame and game time. If you’ve been serenaded by rousing riffs of Barenaked Ladies at the McCarthey Athletic Center or Nirvana at the University of Washington, you don’t know how good you’ve had it. It adds immeasurably to the game-day experience.
(A primer on the Bulldog Band at Gonzaga, courtesy of associate A.D. Chris Standiford: GU’s band is all-volunteer and under the aegis of the athletic department, which pays for instruments, sheet music, uniforms and the services of longtime conductor David Fague, director of the jazz studies program. The band numbers about 130, none of whom are on athletic-department scholarships. Part of the allure for band members is not having to submit to student ticket procedures. GU’s band pre-dates the NCAA-tournament streak, but in sketchier form in early years. It was when the Zags began to be a regular player in the NCAAs that AD Mike Roth committed to an upgraded band.)
Sound systems didn’t seem suitable for either the Santa Clara or USF gyms. In our seats, I’m not sure I caught a distinct word from the P.A. in either game. In fairness, I can’t summarily swear the acoustics are better at the McCarthey, but I suspect they are.
Concessions were unspectacular at both venues. At Santa Clara, I went without. My wife opted for a garden burger, while the topic recalled a memory from something GU athletic director told me several years ago – that there was a motive to the 6 p.m. home starts engineered by Gonzaga when the games aren’t assigned to ESPN. Six o’clock gives most workers time to get to the arena, but not enough time to eat before they get there. So there are varied food choices at the MAC, and they provide GU a worthy revenue source.
Competitively, the legendary challenge Gonzaga has in these arenas is palpable even in warmups, where the hosts give off a determined, excited vibe and the Zags are only workmanlike. The visitors reflect something I’ve believed for a long time: Athletes usually play only as hard as they think they need to win.
At Santa Clara, it was obvious Filip Petrusev, with a career-high 31 points, could do just about anything he wanted. It was also obvious he did a lot of things he won’t be able to do against NCAA-tournament-level competition. Of course, Killian Tillie got hurt, and I say this without any research or foundation, other than having covered or been around teams for about half a century: I honestly don’t remember a basketball player having endured as many different injuries in a college career, one atop another.
With Tillie out at USF, it was going to be a dicey day for Gonzaga. There simply aren’t enough bodies for breathing room. USF took away the perimeter, took the fight to Gonzaga, and led for much of the game in front of a highly diluted crowd. It shouldn’t be a result that diminishes the Zags, given USF’s 80s ranking in both KenPom and the NET.
The weekend stirred in my mind a question that arose a long time ago. If you could gather the WCC presidents around a table and they’d speak what’s in their heart of hearts, would they tell you this isn’t what their school signed up for when they joined an alliance – a conference – of religion-based, non-football-playing West Coast schools? That one school would have charter flights and be a grabber on ESPN, and would nudge my school’s own particular enterprise away from being a sleepy little urban campus to needing to do something dynamic with athletics? Would they really rather not have to deal with the nuisance of athletics insinuating itself into the academic mission?
Around the WCC, there have been recent facilities upgrades. But here's obligatory perspective: Santa Clara’s crowd of 4,200 for Gonzaga was almost 2,000 more than the next-biggest SCU attendance this season, against Cal. The Broncos drew 1,202 for Washington State back on Nov. 12. If the interest is modest, it follows that so will be the investment.
In the men’s room, a philosophical Santa Clara fan said, “We’ll get ‘em next year.” Then, mindful that this was Gonzaga’s 21st straight win over the Broncos, he added, “Maybe.”