Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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Who are these guys?

While the WAC spreads from Louisiana to Hawaii, the Big West is confined to a 439-mile stretch in California

By Ferd Lewis


If the Pac-10 is the Nieman Marcus of collegiate conferences, then Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell proudly declares his league to be "Target."

"I think we provide a lot for an economical price," Farrell said, adding, "We pride ourselves on having our sensibilities in order."

To be sure, the prospective home for UH sports other than football is a trimmed-down version of Hawaii's current residence, the far-flung Western Athletic Conference. The WAC, which reaches from Honolulu to Ruston, La., stretches 4,035 miles as the 747 flies -- or longer than the Great Wall of China.

The nine-team Big West, currently an all-California entity, extends 439 miles from Irvine in the south to Davis in the north. Even for UH, 2,500 miles away, that's practically a neighbor island jaunt when your teams are used to a three- or four-time-zone, multiple-flight adventure.

"You can take one flight, and you're there within driving distance for all your opponents," UH baseball coach Mike Trapasso exults.

UH officials estimate they could save $150,000 on team travel by joining the Big West. Yet to be determined, UH officials say, is how much will have to be paid to subsidize opponents' travel, a condition of admission.

The Big West knows well UH's travel travails. At one time, the Big West stretched from the Pacific to Illinois and all the way to Jonesboro, Ark., home of Arkansas State. Back in the 1990s, it was a Bigger West with outposts in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

In time, however, many of its California core schools dropped football. Uncomfortable with a blend of football and non-football schools, the Big West came to re-define itself as primarily a non-football conference. Currently, two schools, UC Davis and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, have football teams that play in the Football Championship Subdivision, but both will play that sport in the Big Sky.

It is an arrangement brokered this summer by Farrell, who with a keen eye for how the college landscape was changing, put it in place before the WAC and others came knocking.

The Big West, which was born as the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, has recast itself over its 41-year history amid a parade of members that has included San Diego State, Fresno State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Boise State, Nevada and Utah State, among others. And, once upon a time, Hawaii, too.

The Rainbow Wahines' first conference affiliation was the Big West in 1985, a tie that served them well before joining the WAC in 1995, especially in volleyball (165-31, five titles) and basketball (135-74, two titles).

Over the years, Big West baseball, with four national championships and 70 NCAA tournament appearances, and women's volleyball, with six national titles and 15 final four showings, have carried the conference's banner.

"Our goal has been to be one of, if not the top non-football-playing conferences in the country in terms of the success for all of our other sports," Farrell said. "We pride ourselves on being one of the top baseball, volleyball, soccer and softball leagues. We want to be in a position, annually, to put multiple teams in postseason play and have them pick up some victories."

Farrell was reluctant to talk about Big West finances, but people familiar with the conference say the TV package (ESPN and Fox Sports) is modest and its NCAA Tournament payout is low. The combination, they say, means that Big West members pretty much break even when you balance conference dues and fees against shared income.

On the way back from the NCAA Final Four in March, Farrell and UH athletic director Jim Donovan shared a flight to Dallas.

"We exchanged pleasantries, and I told Jim how much I enjoyed going to Hawaii (when it was in the Big West)," Farrell said. "We had just vacationed on Maui, and it (Hawaii) is one of my favorite places on the face of the Earth. We talked about some what-ifs. We talked about what opportunities might present themselves and how we could find ourselves back together some day after the 15 years (apart)."

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