By Bill Sheehan
The Big West Conference turns 50 years old this year, but it's showing no signs of having a midlife crisis. If anything, it's full speed ahead.
The conference is adding two new members – UC San Diego and Cal State Bakersfield – in 2020, plans to expand coverage of its athletics teams via the digital world and is basking in Long Beach State's NCAA men's volleyball championship last spring in the Big West's inaugural season for the sport.
The conference, which began as the Pacific Coast Athletic Association on July 1, 1969, and renamed the Big West in 1988, has seen many changes. A dozen schools from several Western states have come and gone. Football was a big factor at the start but was dropped after the 2000 season. It was one of the first conferences to conduct women's championships under the NCAA umbrella and merge men's and women's sports into side-by-side setups.
The upcoming expansion will solidify the Big West's position as the California-Hawaii public university conference, creating a roster of five representatives from the University of California system, five from the Cal State University network as well as the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
"The conference is in a very good position," said Dennis Farrell, who is in his 28th year as Big West commissioner and his 40th with the conference. "The expansion is going really well."
Steve DiTolla, Cal State Fullerton's senior associate athletics director, agrees that the Big West is heading in the right direction.
"Fullerton has had a strong relationship with the conference since we became members in 1974," he said. "We are pleased to be part of the Big West. The conference is very strong in the state of California, and we support the commissioner's vision."
The Titans celebrated a milestone last spring by winning its first Big West Governor's Cup, which is awarded to the conference's top athletic program. "That was one of the biggest things that has happened to Cal State Fullerton in its athletic history," said DiTolla.
UC San Diego and Cal State Bakersfield will join current Big West members Fullerton, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, UC Riverside and Hawaii. Santa Barbara and Long Beach are Big West charter members.
"The two new schools strengthen our conference brand in places where we currently are not positioned," said Farrell. "San Diego is in a very critical market. Bakersfield will give us a presence in the Central Valley and will serve as a bridge to UC Davis," said Farrell.
UC San Diego is a member of the American Association of Universities, a prestigious group of the top 60 U.S. research institutions. The Big West will match the Southeast Conference with four schools in the AAU and continue to have more AAU institutions than any other mid-major conference.
Bakersfield has a leg up on San Diego because it is already an NCAA Division 1 school. Although San Diego's teams will begin a full Big West schedule in 2020, the school must undergo a four-year reclassification before moving up to Division 1 and its teams will not be eligible for post-season play or championships until the 2024-25 school year. An exception are the San Diego men's volleyball and women's water polo teams, which both have Division 1 status. The men's volleyball team joined the Big West in 2017, and the women's water polo team will compete as a full-fledged Big West member in 2020.
"Bakersfield will fit in very quickly. And when San Diego emerges from the reclassification period, it will be a force," said Farrell.
The commissioner dismissed concerns that the two new members would lower the Big West's overall basketball rankings under the new NET rankings system, which replaced the RPI format. "As soon as they become strong in our conference, we should be fine. I don't think we'll see a drop-off."
'Greater exposure on digital front'
As the television networks encounter shrinking subscriber bases and Power Five football conference schools are concerned about potentially smaller TV deals, Farrell said the Big West is well positioned to succeed in an evolving media market.
"The potential decline would affect the Power 5 conferences far more than programs at our level. Right now, we aren't making a lot of money on television," said Farrell. "What the future holds for conferences like ours is much greater exposure on the digital front. The capacity for getting our content out there to the public is far greater today and at far less cost than it's ever been."
To illustrate that point, Farrell pointed out that both UC San Diego and Cal State Bakersfield are required to develop on-campus digital production capabilities to produce ESPN 3-quality content as part of their Big West admittance.
"Hopefully, that's the model that all of our schools will be going to," he said. "They can produce an unlimited number of games digitally that will help coaches with recruiting and allow family and friends to watch from anywhere in the world."
"I'm excited about the digital future of media, whether it is with ESPN, Amazon, Facebook Live or Google," said Farrell. "We have a contract with ESPN to 2023. But 2023 will be here before we know it. And we don't know what the world will look like then. [Digital production] gives us the ability to possibly shop around to other content providers."
Men's volleyball boosts Big West brand
Long Beach State's NCAA men's volleyball championship last year put the exclamation point on a highly successful launch of Big West men's volleyball. Long Beach State defeated UCLA for the title. UC Irvine was fourth-seeded and reached the tournament quarterfinals.
"We have been talking about sponsoring Big West men's volleyball for quite a few years," said Farrell. After winning the support of the coaches and a promise by the schools to maintain their volleyball programs, the conference moved ahead with the plan.
"It has been wonderful," said Farrell. "Winning a national championship obviously helped promote the Big West brand. I didn't necessarily think we would win in our first year. I'm ecstatic that we did."
"On the West Coast, volleyball is a very popular sport. Of the 32 Division 1 conferences, we are the only one that sponsors men's volleyball. In fact, we are the only conference that sponsors all three NCAA volleyball sports – men's, women's and sand volleyball."
The Big West currently has no plans to add more sports, though swimming and diving are on the drawing board. Three Big West universities have teams that compete in football: Hawaii in the Mountain West Conference, and UC Davis and Cal Poly in the Big Sky Conference.
An Orange County lifer
Farrell, who works out of the Big West corporate office in Irvine, is an Orange County native who lives in Coto de Caza. He attended Santa Ana High School and received a journalism degree at San Diego State. Farrell interned at a radio station, worked at a newspaper and took public relations classes while attending college.
"I never set out for this to be my profession," said Farrell. "The opportunities just opened up."
He first started his career in athletics at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, where he served as sports information director. Farrell then moved to the Pacific Coast Athletic Association office in 1980. He worked under former commissioners Lew Cryer and Jim Haney before taking the top job in 1992.
"I was thrust into a number of different jobs at first – running championships, rules compliance, organizing meetings and public relations responsibilities," said Farrell. "I found the work
fascinating. I'm extremely fortunate and sometimes pinch myself to think, 'How did I ever luck out to have a position like this?' "
"I've been able to live in the county that's my home. It's where I have always wanted to live. It's been more than a job or career. It's been my life. With the 50th anniversary coming up, I've been with the conference for 40 of those 50 years."
Farrell, whose son Mike was the facilities event manager at Titan Gym before becoming an assistant athletic director at Cal Poly Pomona, addressed other issues concerning the Big West.
--Conference expansion. "We're not in a rush to go to 12 members. We've had division alignments before, and they can lead to some polarization among members. There are really two reasons conferences expand -- for survival or opportunity. Fortunately, we are in a position that we're going to be able to look at any future candidates for membership and ask, 'Does this present an opportunity for us to get better?' "
--Proposed paying of student-athletes. "We are not professional sports franchises, certainly not the programs at our level. Our institutions won't ever be in the position to pay student-athletes. If our model is broken, you might see athletic departments shutting down."
--Getting more Big West teams into the NCAA basketball tournament. "The mid-majors have had trouble getting two teams into the tournament. When the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was in the Big West, it raised the water for everyone else. We were getting two or three teams into the tournament each year. It's very tough these days, with all the money the Power Five conference teams are generating and reinvesting in basketball, it's been harder and harder for conferences on our level. It can happen, but it has to start at the institutional level."
--Conference scheduling. "Scheduling is challenging. Some coaches view scheduling from their narrow perspective as to how it impacts their programs. You have to be able to see the big picture. There is no such thing as a perfect schedule. You have to work around things such as homecoming, Halloween celebrations and other campus events."
--Todd McNair court ruling. Last fall, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge found the NCAA's show-cause sanction against former USC assistant football coach Todd McNair violated state law and declared the bylaws behind the penalty void because they're an "unlawful restraint" on pursuing a lawful profession. An NCAA committee had found that McNair engaged in unethical conduct in connection with running back Reggie Bush receiving extra benefits from sports marketers while playing at USC. The L.A. County judge's ruling means a part of the NCAA's infractions process would not apply to California schools. "The voiding of the show-cause provision jeopardizes the Big West's compliance with the NCAA. I've met briefly with the lead attorney for the NCAA. There is probably going to be an appeal of that decision to the California State Supreme Court. I don't quite understand the rationale for that judge's ruling, but that's why we have attorneys."
Farrell's legacy even extends beyond the Big West. He has served on myriad NCAA committees and had a hand in the creation of the Las Vegas and Famous Idaho Potato bowl games when football was part of the Big West.
"There's no question I'm getting toward the end of my career. The thing I'll be most proud of when I do hang it up is that the conference is in a better place than it ever has been before," Farrell said.
"I'm just the caretaker. It's not my conference. Someday, someone else will take over."
And his successor will have a tough act to follow, indeed.