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Originally published July 15, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 15, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Seattle U. is full-speed ahead toward a revival of Division I status

and this is one of those sublime Seattle days ...ll Hogan can see for miles. In his athletic director's office at Seattle University...

Seattle Times college basketball reporter

On a clear day — and this is one of those sublime Seattle days — Bill Hogan can see for miles.

In his athletic director's office at Seattle University on First Hill, Hogan can see pulsating basketball to recall the good, old days of Elgin Baylor and Eddie Miles and Tom Workman. He can see rivalries with Washington and frenzy with Gonzaga and intrigue with Portland.

"When you think about it," says Hogan, 54, entertaining a reverie as he sprawls back in his chair, "who could do it better than us?"

Here's the rub, if you're Hogan: The West Coast Conference is much more nearsighted.

Two things have happened with athletics in recent months at Seattle U., at once exciting and sobering. The Redhawks — you knew them as the Chieftains back in the halcyon days of guys like Eddie and Johnny O'Brien, major-league baseball players on the come — have decided to make an unusual leap from NCAA Division II to D-I sports, a rarity in that they're returning from whence they came.

Second, the WCC, which Seattle U. left 27 years ago, voted in March not to expand its eight-team membership, prospectively leaving the school in that no-man's-land of college classification — independent.

It wasn't a message of get lost, but it was very much this: Get better.

"They're in the process of going to Division I," says the Rev. William Beauchamp, president of the University of Portland. "That requires a lot of money, and it's not something that happens overnight.

"As far as the West Coast Conference is concerned, it was a little premature for them to come into the conference right now."

Fair enough, says Hogan, who as much as promises the Redhawks will be back to knock on that door.

"Why can't we be really, really good?" he asks. "We look forward to the challenge. For those that don't think we can do it, we look forward to proving them wrong."

WCC: Not so fast

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Hogan says he's all about tradition, and that's fitting for this story, because Seattle U. has a grand history of success decades ago. For instance, led by Baylor, one of the greats in college-basketball history, it played in the 1958 NCAA championship game, losing to Kentucky.

And, a little surprisingly, there's tradition on the other side in the WCC. While the popular view of the league in a Pac-10 city like Seattle might be that of distant little brother, the WCC has been together longer in its current state than any conference you can name other than the Pac-10 and the Ivy — including all the BCS leagues, the Mountain West, the WAC, the Atlantic-10, Missouri Valley, Conference USA.

That history means more potential for old loyalties and long memories, and for a time-tested way of doing business.

So it was that at the league tournament in March, the league's athletic directors held their breath and awaited the presidential vote.

There was no doubt about Seattle U. as an institutional fit. Jesuit school in a religion-based conference, strong academically, urban school in a league of urban schools — perfect.

Gonzaga's president, Father Robert Spitzer, got up and lent support to Seattle U., partly as formality; as a school in the same Jesuit province, he was bound to do it.

Collectively, however, the WCC presidents put the kibosh on the idea. The vote shocked some of the league's athletic personnel, who thought they might scrutinize it more from the standpoint of institutional rather than athletic fit. Not so.

"This is really a performance-driven industry," says Mike Gilleran, the WCC commissioner and a Seattle U. grad. "It comes under the heading — duh — we keep score. It's not intramurals.

"I think any institution we would consider would be better positioned if they could say, 'This is what we're bringing you right now.' It's not what we think it might be years down the road."

Tough days ahead

for Seattle U.

So what might Seattle U. be like athletically years down the road?

It has a budget of about $4 million. Hogan says to bump that to the range of WCC upper half would mean raising it to about $9 million.

The school has the required 14 sports for Division I entry, but not baseball, a key component in the WCC. It might also need to add golf and tennis for league membership.

With or without a league affiliation, this is the immediate agenda for the Redhawks: They play a final year of Division II in 2007-08, a so-called "reclassification" transitional year in '08-09, and in '09-10, as Hogan says, "It's full-speed ahead" toward Division I.

The biggest challenges:

• The school's Connolly Center holds only 1,650 for basketball, so it would have to play games at KeyArena, with whose officials Hogan has had discussions about rental. That means it needs to be financially feasible, raising the question of attendance in a facility off campus.

"I would say it's affordable," Hogan says. "Put it this way: If we do a decent job of selling season tickets, we can afford the rent."

Hogan adds that a project to build a "nice, on-campus arena" of about 4,000 south of the Connolly Center is taking wing. Fundraising has begun, with the hope of starting it in 2009 and being in it by the 2011-12 season.

• Because the school doesn't have a baseball team, it doesn't have a baseball facility. It would have to play off campus, but Hogan doesn't see that as untenable.

• Scheduling, especially in basketball, is usually a wicked proposition for teams not in a conference. In November and December, Seattle U. would schedule the logical ration of Pac-10, WCC, Big Sky and Big West opponents.

After that, when conference play has started, Hogan says it can schedule teams making the same transition to Division I and thus seeking opponents. At present, that's a hodgepodge of far-flung and unattractive targets like Cal State-Bakersfield, Utah Valley State, New Jersey Tech and North and South Dakota.

"We're going to have our tough days," concedes Hogan. "We're going to have our days when we're getting drubbed by 30 by somebody. We have to persevere through the tough times. It's like anything else — if it's worthwhile, it becomes more rewarding."

Clearly, life would be easier in a conference. It helps that Hogan came from one; he was a longtime athletic director at San Francisco in the WCC before arriving at Seattle U. last year.

So he knows the history of movement within the WCC, how Seattle U. abruptly abandoned its membership in 1980 (it had joined in 1971), how the league a decade ago entertained the idea of adding two teams from among Cal-Santa Barbara, Pacific and Denver. That became too public, creating animosity in those programs' leagues, so this current WCC-Seattle U. tango is being played out with tighter lips.

One probability is that Seattle U. needs a partner to re-enter the WCC — a nine-team league is hard to schedule — and again, Pacific, in Stockton, Calif., gets mentioned.

Hogan says there have also been preliminary talks with the nine-team Western Athletic Conference, confirmed by commissioner Karl Benson.

"We've looked at the possibility of a non-football member," Benson says. "We're at nine for basketball and nine is probably not the best number. We're not at the point where we're seriously considering it, but we certainly wouldn't rule it out."

The Seattle U. resurrection raises another issue: Can it make it with its alumni — 12,000 in Seattle, another 15,000-plus scattered in the area — or does it need a broader base of support?

Among major metropolitan cities, Seattle is one of the few that finds a big place in its psyche for college sports. But is that interest largely confined to the University of Washington?

The sporting dynamic was different in the city when Seattle U. was last relevant in big-time sports in the late 1970s: The Sonics were the dominant pro team, Washington was resurgent in football, but the Seahawks and Mariners — the dominating pro teams now — were curiosities not yet established as powers.

Hogan cites an online survey that showed heavy alumni interest in returning to Division I sports. And regarding the pros, he says, "I like working with pro teams. I think sharing an arena with an NBA team would be fantastic.

"I don't think it's either-or, I think it's 'and.' I think it's the Sonics and Seattle U. I think it's the Mariners and Seattle U."

The Zags factor

When Seattle U. left the WCC in 1980, Gonzaga was a little hard-trying school with a freshman guard coming in by the name of John Stockton. Today it's the 800-pound gorilla of the league, scheduling and beating ACC teams, getting the occasional top-10 ranking, bringing TV exposure to the WCC.

"I'm very happy for them," Hogan says. "They've done it the right way. They've built a monster over there. It's a great school, and we'd love to compete with them."

It wouldn't take a lot of imagination to project Gonzaga opposing Seattle U.'s entry into the WCC. The Puget Sound area has become a mother lode for recruiting, and the Redhawks could be just one more obstacle for the Zags. Moreover, until Seattle U. could become competitive in Division I, it would be a drag on Gonzaga's schedule.

But the perception that Gonzaga doesn't want Seattle U. in the WCC might not be true. Gonzaga people say there would be advantages to scheduling in many sports if Seattle U. could demonstrate Division I capability. It might even be easier for the Zags to retain an upper hand in basketball if the two were league brethren than not.

Asked whether he would support Seattle U. inclusion into the WCC if it proved itself viable in Division I, Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth says, "I believe I would. But I also think we're talking about a ways out."

There's an inside joke at Gonzaga that says that its decade-long dominance in basketball leads the WCC to act in direct conflict with whatever might benefit the Zags. With the March vote, however, the league presidents showed their deference to Gonzaga.

Each win in the NCAA basketball tournament is worth about $1 million to the winner's conference over a rolling, six-year window. In the past decade, Gonzaga has won 10 games in the NCAA tournament, but the rest of the league has won one (Pepperdine in 2000).

Anything that imperils those victories, then, is of concern to the WCC, and having a lightweight on any NCAA participant's schedule is one. For the first couple of years, at least, Seattle U.'s ranking in the Ratings Percentage Index computer would likely be so low as to damage seeding of NCAA teams from the WCC.

That became a considerable factor in the league's thumbs-down to Seattle U. in March.

A will to get it done

Without a lot of prodding, Hogan will wax enthusiastic about the signs of alumni support around him, about Johnny O'Brien's annual golf outing with all his former baseball teammates, about the basketball banquet that brought back key players of the magical days of decades gone by.

That's in contrast to a considerable level of skepticism in the WCC over whether Seattle U. can become competitive enough, whether it can answer the facilities questions, even whether it can find a logical partner to make it a 10-team league.

Here's the view of one longtime administrator at a league member school, referring to a new campus basketball facility:

"If [Hogan] can get that done, that would be quite the coup," he said. "Getting into the West Coast Conference, if he can get that done, he'd be a first-ballot hall of famer at Seattle U."

If that's the case, Hogan intends to be enshrined someday.

"You just realize that it's very important to a lot of people," he says of the return to big-time sports. "There was a lot of hurt for the older alumni.

"I call this Northwest spirit, of, hey, we're going to control our own destiny."

The WCC presidents, several of them priests, will be watching closely. To them, Seattle U.'s athletic revival is about more than faith.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

WCC membership
Seattle University would like to rejoin the West Coast Conference, but the existing eight schools voted this spring not to expand — not yet, at least. The eight teams in the conference have been together since 1979. All-time membership in the WCC:
Current members
School Joined
Saint Mary's 1952
Santa Clara 1952
San Francisco 1952
Loyola Marymount 1955
Pepperdine 1955
Portland 1976
Gonzaga 1979
San Diego 1979
Former members
School Years
San Jose State 1952-69
Pacific 1952-71
Fresno State 1955-57
Santa Barbara 1964-69
UNLV 1969-75
Nevada-Reno 1969-79
Seattle U. 1971-80

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