Aztecs will challenge other schools

December, 14, 2011
The Big East probably couldn't care less what it did for the Big West by adding San Diego State in football.

But the addition of the Aztecs in men's basketball (the rest of the sports will join as well) for the 2013-14 season has a chance to change the one-bid Big West to some extent. It could be similar to UNLV's addition to the league in the 1980s, when the Runnin' Rebels were a national program that helped raise the profile of schools like Long Beach State, New Mexico State and UC Santa Barbara.

Getting multiple bids wasn't the norm, but it wasn't out of the ordinary, either. The Big West on a late Monday night was worth watching, and the competition was always raised to another level when the Rebels played. That's exactly what longtime commissioner Dennis Farrell (a 31-year Big West employee) hopes will be the long-term effect of adding the Aztecs.

It's a view shared by others, too. "I would compare San Diego State today for us to what UNLV was to the Big West Conference in the 1980s,'' Farrell said. "That's what attracted us to San Diego State. I would compare what we had with UNLV, the West Coast Conference has with Gonzaga now.

"That's the difference between the West Coast and the Big West,'' Farrell said. "The West Coast has a horse in Gonzaga. We used to have a horse in UNLV. When you have a horse that raises the profile for the other programs, [it] raises the exposure the conference is getting. Gonzaga has done that for the WCC. I'm expecting we'll have that with San Diego State.''

Farrell has a point. The rise of Saint Mary's to a legit NCAA tournament contender the last five seasons is a direct result of trying to compete with Gonzaga. BYU's attraction to the WCC this season wasn't just about joining a faith-based, private conference. The Cougars wanted to join a league that is a major player on the West Coast.

The San Diego State program that will join the Big West in two seasons is far different from the mediocre and irrelevant Atzec teams of the 1990s. Those squads played in the antiquated San Diego Sports Arena and on campus at Peterson Gym. Attendance was poor. Coaches came and went. And there was little passion for the program.

Now SDSU is one of the hot new spots in the sport with Steve Fisher revitalizing a once-dormant fan base. Viejas Arena is arguably the most passionate place to see a game in California (yes, even more so than UCLA, Cal or Stanford).

But more important, it's what the Aztecs have done in the NCAA tournament. San Diego State reached the Sweet 16 last March and has had multiple NCAA bids under Fisher. The tournament wins last March were the first in the program's history.

"When UNLV was in our conference, we could get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament,'' Farrell said. "They brought along attention, and whenever they came to town there were big crowds. Coaches used that in recruiting.''

Adding San Diego State in the 1990s wouldn't have caused a ripple. But this is a new era. The Big West has been relegated to a one-bid league, no different from the Big Sky. When UNLV left for the WAC and then the MWC, New Mexico State and Utah State eventually followed. The Big West ultimately became an all-California league. It remains that way but will branch out to add Hawaii (a return for its women's programs) when the Rainbow Warriors join in 2012-13 in all sports except football. "When UNLV left the conference, coaches were complaining,'' Farrell said. "All of the programs will have to raise the water level for all their programs in terms of commitment and media exposure. We have our primary and secondary media rights up in 18 months, and this will help us in our negotiations. Adding another time zone in Hawaii will also help us.''

Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was the Long Beach State head coach when UNLV was challenging for the national title in the early '90s. He said the addition of San Diego State will challenge every other school in the league to make a choice. "It's no different than what Gonzaga has done in the West Coast Conference,'' Greenberg said. "Either you're going to raise the bar and be competitive or just have a basketball team. That goes across the board for recruiting budgets and coaches' salaries and facilities and in every aspect in how you run your program.''

Greenberg said he thinks Long Beach State and Santa Barbara will be able to compete. "But the other schools will have to make the tough choices,'' Greenberg said.

One of those other schools in the soon-to-be 11-team league is Cal-State Northridge, coached by Bobby Braswell, Greenberg's former Long Beach assistant.

Braswell said he met with his administration Tuesday about that subject.

"I would hope everybody has to look to step it up a bit,'' Braswell said. "Adding San Diego State and Hawaii is a signal that the other schools in the conference have to pick it up. We're in a situation where we are a legitimate program, and we've done well on the national level.

"I was at Long Beach State when the conference had UNLV, New Mexico State and Fresno State, and we had a darn good competitive league,'' Braswell said. "We can get it back there. We've got to look at the budgets and funding scholarships. We have to look at out-of-state tuition costs and things like that. This is where the budget comes in. We have to have the ability to play guarantee games. We don't have the budget to do that. We spend the pre-conference on the road. I know it's difficult times financially. But this is great for our conference to have [SDSU] in our league.''

Current Long Beach State coach Dan Monson, the former Gonzaga coach, is a bit of a contrarian on the subject. "We only have one private school in the league [and that's Pacific], so it's going to be difficult to match,'' Monson said. San Diego State is a state school, and there was a lot of lobbying to get Viejas Arena built.

"I hope [SDSU] helps the rest of the league, but they did win their first game in the NCAA just this year,'' Monson said. "Vegas was going to Final Fours. I understand why they [the Big West] did it, but it will make my job harder. I'm sure it's good for the overall league, but we've added a team with better facilities and a lot of resources that you're competing against.''

Monson said the other games in the league have to matter as well to help improve the overall power rating. That's a point Gonzaga has made in the past, and having Saint Mary's improve and now the addition of BYU will help offset the Zags' RPI from dropping too much in the WCC after a tough nonconference slate.

Farrell said Fisher wants a 14-game league schedule, but he said the athletic directors will meet about that in February. He said he wouldn't rule out 16 or 18 games, though. Fisher wants to schedule more national games, and as a result of the Big East football deal, the Aztecs could get a home-and-home with Connecticut.

"San Diego State has the profile, the culture and a brand that is totally different than what the [Big West] has,'' Greenberg said. "They have the ownership of their student body, their community is involved and [they have] a national recognizable coach that gives [the school] credibility across the board. And they've proven they can compete nationally with California kids.

"Does the league become a have and have-not league? A number of schools have to make a decision on if they want to compete.''

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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