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West Coast Conference Commissioner Gloria Nevarez chats with game officials before Gonzaga plays Santa Clara on Jan. 15 in WCC play in Santa Clara, Calif.

Gloria Nevarez became the West Coast Conference Commissioner in April 2018, approximately two months after a report surfaced in the San Diego Union-Tribune about the Mountain West’s pursuit of Gonzaga.

Thanks to changes with scheduling and revenue distribution, the WCC’s top breadwinner ultimately decided to stay put, and Nevarez avoided a high-stress situation – and that’s putting it lightly – just a handful of days into her new job.

The turbulent times didn’t stop there. Gonzaga has pledged its commitment to the WCC for the foreseeable future, but the conference’s second-most valuable member, BYU, recently turned in its membership card after announcing plans to join the Big-12 in 2023.

Realignment suddenly becomes a priority for Nevarez, although she’ll be the first to admit that’s taken somewhat of a backseat as the WCC continues to deal with the wide-ranging ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the four years Nevarez has spent as WCC Commissioner, three have been impacted by COVID-19.

The virus shuttered the 2019-20 college basketball season two days after the WCC Tournament ended. It led to dozens of cancellations and postponements in 2020-21 – not to mention significant revenue loss when the WCC closed its Vegas-based tournament to fans – and it created more rescheduling nightmares in 2021-22 when the conference lost additional games during the country’s omicron surge.

“COVID has not been fun and extremely challenging,” Nevarez said. “I just really am very blessed and grateful for the alignment we have in our league and although decision-making and challenges are tough, I feel like we are all pretty centered around student-athlete and participant well-being, health and safety first and then let’s get the games.

“Let’s try everything we can to play the games, finish the seasons and have a championship.”

In an interview earlier this week, Nevarez offered her thoughts on the conference’s COVID response, the opportunity for three or four men’s teams to secure NCAA bids, BYU’s departure and her stance on Gonzaga’s future in the conference.

Spokesman-Review: In hindsight, how do you think the conference handled this year’s COVID setbacks?

Nevarez: “It was different than last year. Last year we lost so many games and we were scrambling just to piece together NCAA minimums and a single round robin. Trying to get everyone to play once. This year, when we hit January we lost a bunch of games, but we had this optimism that once we got everyone back on campus after the holidays that we’d hit a pretty good rhythm going forward. So it was much, much different. We did end up losing some games, but I’m excited we didn’t lose any after that return to campus window and we got most of them replayed.”

S-R: How did the conference balance trying to get the games rescheduled and trying to avoid forcing teams to play three games in a week?

Nevarez: “The commissioner has a set of parameters in the handbook for any reschedules not related to COVID. This year we added a priority about not playing more than, it was five in 14 days unless the schools chose to do so. So that’s how we attacked balancing it.”

S-R: Did you imagine before the season started we’d still be talking about four WCC teams potentially securing bids to the NCAA Tournament the first week of March?

Nevarez: “Yes, yes (laughing). Because this has been a build for us. That first year in 2020, we would’ve had three teams in, all in single-digit seeds. And last year probably the same. Saint Mary’s got hit really hard. They had two, we called them ‘had to sit on the couch’ for COVID at two critical times of the season. But for COVID, I think folks wouldn’t have been surprised by 2022 that the WCC was looking at three, if not four, tournament teams.”

S-R: Do you think this level of success is sustainable where every few years the WCC is able to send three to four teams to the tournament?

Nevarez: “Absolutely. That’s what we think about, that’s what we’re building for, not just in men’s basketball but in all sports. And even during COVID, we had four national titles. For a league of our size and scope, that just shows where our focus is. And a lot of the work we’ve done, especially in the men’s basketball area, the nonconference scheduling guidelines, the regular-season format, we annually evaluate all of that to make sure we’re setting ourselves up for getting the most possible teams in the tournament at the highest possible seeds.”

S-R: With the exception of the last two seasons, where teams haven’t necessarily played full WCC schedules, how do you think the 16-game format has worked to this point?

Nevarez: “I liked it for where we were when we adopted it, and I think it’s been working well for us. I do think that as our league changes and teams in the middle and bottom get stronger, which clearly they are, then we have to evaluate that annually. But that’s not a standalone thing, you can’t just look at the league schedule without looking at our nonconference parameters, without looking at our conference tournament format. It will be an evaluation of all three of those components every year.”

S-R: There’s always lots of dialogue and discussion about your conference tournament format, with two teams getting automatic byes to the semifinal game. Are you happy with the format as things stand now and is there any changes you would consider down the road?

Nevarez: “Same answer as the regular-season schedule. It’s not a standalone component. You have to look at conference, nonconference and tournament format and you have to look at the depth and diversity of our league in any given year. There were very solid reasons and rationales for adopting the format of all three of those pieces and clearly every year we need to evaluate based on the trajectory of all 10 teams. We talk about it annually. Whether we change one piece, all three pieces, all TBD, but something we look at and discuss deeply and often in the offseason.”

S-R: What are the advantages and disadvantages of the current conference tournament bracket? Can you weigh both sides of that?

Nevarez: “I think the pros are that you’re rewarding teams that have gone through the gauntlet of a very difficult conference season and enabling them to continue to make their case for higher seeds. The cons are it’s a tough road if you’re in the bottom half of the league. I don’t know if we’ve had a team make it all the way to the champ game from day one. There is some probably equilibrium that could find its way into that format in the next couple years, but again it’s a deeper analysis than just the tournament format standing alone.”

S-R: The WCC is losing BYU the season after next. Have there been preliminary discussions with other schools about filling their place and is there a timeline you need to follow for when you’d have a replacement school locked in?

Nevarez: “I really loved having BYU, even though I only got them for four years of my tenure. They really fit with us despite how different they are, as far as size and the football program and everything. I’m really, really happy for them. I think they found a great landing place and it’s been a wonderful 10 years. So yeah, our process is ticking along. Everything kind of got a little bit paused due to COVID. We’re a little bit shorthanded on staff, we have a couple things we were hoping to wrangle to the ground by tournament that just are still in the process. We have a working group analyzing it day by day and we’ll probably pick up the baton on that again once we get through our tournament.”

S-R: What will a potential replacement school have to bring to the conference to make it a good fit?

Nevarez: “I think that’s the thing that we prioritized, alignment and fit. I think we’re really special for a league of our size and granted geography plays a big part in that. We’ve been immune, a little bit with the exception of the BYU thing, from all the conference realignment. But we have the faith-based, about the same size, in the same footprint schools in the western region. Our philosophy, our mission, our goals are very much aligned in that. Fit with a capital “FIT” is really important to us, and right behind that is athletic excellence. We don’t want to bring in someone who’s going to be at the bottom of the league in all sports and championships. We vie for national titles in all of the WCC sports we compete in, and that’s a very special thing for a league like ours. It would be easy to just focus on men’s and women’s basketball, but we really bring home the hardware, so I think that commitment to athletics but still while maintaining that core mission and student-athlete focus is going to be really important to us.”

S-R: There’s always discussion about Gonzaga and its status within the conference. You helped convince Gonzaga to stay when there were conversations about a potential move to the Mountain West. Do you feel good about Gonzaga’s future with the conference?

Nevarez: “Partly because of my first stint in the WCC and partly just because there’s a lot of good human beings up there in Spokane working in their athletic department, we have a great relationship, we have a lot of transparency, we communicate all the time. But most importantly, I think they fit with us, and they’ve shown they can win a national title from the WCC. They’ve already built this amazing program, they have fantastic national exposure, they get the recruits and they can bring home the NCAA trophy from Spokane in the WCC. I feel personally they fit, and there’s really nothing in the WCC holding them back from achieving their goals.”

S-R: There’s been lots of criticism surrounding Gonzaga’s status in the WCC. As you know, the league’s perception isn’t always strong on a national level. What’s your response as a commissioner when you hear or read some of those things? Have you learned to tune them out?

Nevarez: “At the beginning it was, ‘Oh congratulations on the new job. What league are you in? Are you in the WAC? Are you in the Big West?’ Now I think there’s a lot more acknowledgment and a lot more respect for the WCC, and if you want to compare us to a Power Five and say that we’re not as strong, great. Let’s compare to a Power Five every year, I would love that. This year has shown, last year’s shown actually, Gonzaga does not move backward when they move through our league, and that is the No. 1 most important thing for us is making sure the combination of our nonconference parameters, our conference play and our conference tournament move all teams forward. But losing to Saint Mary’s, while unfortunate for Gonzaga, is a huge statement for what the WCC is. It’s not a walk in the park.”

S-R: What do you make of Gonzaga’s chances this season to win the national championship?

Nevarez: “I’m an optimist at heart, so I believe that every year. But I certainly think what Mark has built is certainly a testament to the alignment at Gonzaga, from the president to the AD to the head coach and the consistency at which they’ve built that. And it’s not over five years, it’s not over 10 years, it’s over two decades. What they’ve built is sustainable and I have so much amazement and pride, even though I have nothing to do with it, of what they have going on up there and yeah, I just believe.”

S-R: What does your travel schedule look like over the month if three to four WCC teams are playing in the tournament? It could be a pretty hectic month for you.

Nevarez: “In a non-COVID year, we have five to six folks that travel and try to hit all the men’s and women’s games, and it is a lot of flight jumping. Our budgets are still a little bit shy based on some COVID recovery, so we’re going to be curtailed a little bit, but the good news is we have two western region – Portland and San Diego – sites this year, so that’ll make it a little bit easier. But we might not catch the ones on the other coast in the early rounds just due to our fiscal recovery.”

S-R: But then you potentially have Sweet 16 games in San Francisco, which could make it nice for the conference (the WCC office is headquartered in San Mateo, California) …

Nevarez: “I don’t have the stat in front of me, but 2016 in Phoenix was the first time it had been west in, I don’t know how many years. They just don’t come this way, so I’m hopeful this West Coast basketball resurgence is going to prompt a little more of that site selection and maybe some cities bidding for some sites.”

Editor’s note: this interview was edited for brevity.

Theo Lawson can be reached at (509) 939-5928 or theol@spokesman.com.