This Conference Now Little West

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nevada Las Vegas was the best, but that seems so many lifetimes ago. The Rebels haven't been among the nation's elite for several seasons and their impressive arena, once an opposition graveyard, no longer stirs fear or remains full.

Nevada Las Vegas has fallen so hard from its perch atop college basketball that little remains to remind of past glory. Coach Jerry Tarkanian and the Rebels took the Big West Conference along for the ride during their fastbreak to greatness in the 1980s, and the conference has been in tow for their collapse too.

"Obviously, we've struggled recently and that's had a big effect on the conference," first-year Rebel Coach Bill Bayno said. "We have a task at hand to rebuild this basketball program. It's not going to be easy, but we're committed."

The Big West won't benefit from a Rebel revival, however. Along with San Jose State, UNLV is moving to the Western Athletic Conference at the end of the academic year.

Losing UNLV is the most significant and potentially devastating change for a conference whose relatively brief history has been characterized by seemingly perpetual upheaval. Not only was UNLV dominant in men's basketball--the conference's marquee sport--it defined the conference nationally by transcending it.

"Vegas leaving certainly takes a lot of the national spotlight away [from the Big West]," said commentator Dick Vitale.

UC Santa Barbara Coach Jerry Pimm agrees that UNLV set the tone. Pimm, the dean of Big West coaches, doesn't know how, or if, the conference will overcome the Rebels' departure.

"No doubt about it--this hurts," said Pimm, in his 13th season with the Gauchos. "They were our flagship."

The Rebels entered the Big West in 1981. They joined the men's basketball schedule for the 1982-83 season . . . and won the conference championship.

UNLV won 10 consecutive conference titles from 1983 to 1992. The Rebels won seven Big West tournament titles from 1983 to 1991.

Moreover, the Rebels were a perennial NCAA tournament power. From 1984 to 1991, UNLV played in six regional semifinals, four regional finals and three Final Fours. UNLV won the 1989-90 national championship.

"Any league is better off with a marquee team," said Tarkanian, in his first year as Fresno State coach. "The fact that we were in the tournament all the time and that we were successful gave the Big West a lot of prestige--and money."

Conference members benefit equally from tournament earnings, and UNLV contributed the bulk of those funds during Tarkanian's 19-year tenure. For example, each Big West institution has received $211,693 per year since 1991 for UNLV's share from winning the 1990 national title.

That represented 20% of the pool of revenue schools received from the conference last year. Although that revenue ends this season, the conference still has UNLV's 1990-91 Final Four money to divide until 1997.

The zenith of Big West basketball occurred in 1989-90 when the Rebels won the NCAA title by routing Duke, 103-73. That season, the three Big West teams--UNLV, New Mexico State and Santa Barbara--reached the NCAA tournament.

But Tarkanian's troubles with the NCAA over numerous major rules violations and his feud with UNLV President Robert Maxson, who now holds the same post at Long Beach, helped wreck the program.

Tarkanian left UNLV in controversy after the 1991-92 season. Maxson hired former Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino, but the unpopular Massimino was forced out after two seasons as the program faltered.

Attendance at the Thomas & Mack Center has plummeted. Last season, the Rebels had five coaches in a six-month period.

National perception, triggered by UNLV's demise, has affected the Big West's TV opportunities. Since 1989, the conference has been included in ESPN's Big Monday package. ESPN reduced the Big West's Big Monday schedule from eight to four games this season, giving four games to the WAC. ESPN has not guaranteed the Big West any Big Monday games next season.

Dave Brown, program manager of college sports at ESPN, admitted that the Big West is significantly less attractive without a strong team at UNLV. "Certainly, it's one of the factors we had to pay attention to," Brown said. "When UNLV was really riding high, they put up some pretty terrific ratings for us. Without them, it's tougher."

Tarkanian expects the Big West to fall from public consciousness when UNLV leaves.

"It's going way down, there's no question about it," he said. "If any one of those teams [remaining] turns into a power it will help, but it's going to be very tough."

Big West Commissioner Dennis Farrell doesn't accept that. Farrell points to the conference's history of change and its survival so far.

The Big West has undergone many changes since its formation in 1969. When San Jose State and UNLV leave, only Long Beach State, Pacific and Santa Barbara will remain from the charter group of seven.

Moreover, the conference has coped with the elimination of football programs at many schools and several expansions. Boise State, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Idaho and North Texas will join the Big West next season. However, Cal Poly's football team will remain in Division I-AA.

"The rest of the conference was able to shine in [UNLV's] reflective glory," Farrell said. "They were a major player for the conference. They were the prime reason why we were able to put together the Big Monday contract and those types of things.

"I'm not going to deny losing UNLV is easy. I'd just as soon not be losing UNLV. But you can't wallow in and worry about what's already been done. What we have to do is challenge our new schools to step it up."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°