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The Colleges : SIZABLE FEAT : Big West Conference Comes a Long Way During Haney's Busy First Year

April 21, 1989|ROBYN NORWOOD | Times Staff Writer

Jim Haney can stroll through basketball arenas without a twinge of stress these days, and he gets to go to the first round of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament on business--two luxuries he didn't have as a coach.

As he completes his first year as commissioner of the Big West Conference, Haney is so sunny an optimist that he calls the conference's problems--such as its image as a league whose football teams struggle to remain in Division I-A--"opportunities for victory."

He hasn't always been so confidently optimistic, particularly not during his five years as basketball coach at Oregon. He laughs now about the days when he didn't carry identification in order to cash a check: For better or worse, people in Eugene, Ore., knew exactly who he was.

He resigned from Oregon in 1983. His teams never won more than 13 games in a season, and he finished his coaching career with a winning percentage of .392, which among Oregon fans more likely is perceived as a losing percentage of .608.

Next came stints as an assistant to the vice president of player personnel with the Dallas Cowboys and as an assistant basketball coach at Kansas. Then Haney moved onto the fast track as a conference administrator, first as an assistant commissioner in the Metro Conference and then as commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, which he is credited with saving, if not resurrecting.

Now, as the fourth commissioner of the 20-year-old league formerly known as Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., Haney, 40, deserves a large part of the credit for the small matter of accomplishing the heretofore unimagineable: He has managed to get the conference--once cumbersomely known as the PCAA if it was known at all--mentioned hundreds upon hundreds of times in the same breath with the Big East and Big Ten.

That came as the result of a television package with ESPN that put Big West basketball games on the national cable sports network as part of "Big Monday," ESPN's three-game Monday night package beginning with a Big East game, followed by a Big Ten game, and finally, four times this season, followed by a Big West game.

ESPN, which had never broadcast a regular-season PCAA game, broadcast nine Big West games this year and will expand its Big Monday coverage next year.

That ESPN package--which stemmed from a brainstorm Haney had as he sat on a plane and connected the "Big" conferences with a television package--was a coup that not only solidified the choice of Big West as the conference's new name, but also helped publicize it. Big Monday was promoted in Sports Illustrated, as well as on ESPN and CNN.

The name change had been in the works under previous commissioner Lew Cryer for months, and most people believe it would have been approved regardless of who replaced Cryer, who resigned. But the ESPN deal, a Haney brainchild negotiated by Creative Sports Marketing, a group he brought on board, was the final factor in the choice of Big West over other possibilities that included "Wild West."

"People felt there was some confusion over who the PCAA was, and now there's a clear understanding that there is a Big West in the West," Haney said. "Although people may not be able to go through and name every team, there are very few people who could go through and name all the institutions in the various conferences."

But an identity and awareness of who is in the conference is a small part of what the Big West--long lost in the shadow particularly of the Pacific 10 and to some extent of the Western Athletic Conference--is seeking.

"Ultimately, what you're looking for is trying to create your niche," Haney said. "We're not trying to overshadow anybody or remove somebody out of their public perception as a very good conference. What we're trying to seek is recognition of the tremendous accomplishments of this conference, the breadth of what we do in men's and women's sports. The conference needs to receive that credit."

The name change and the big-splash ESPN deal have been the most heralded events of Haney's--and the Big West's--first year. Haney's pursuit of television paid off in other ways. UNLV, working through Creative Sports Marketing, played six games televised on the three major national networks. Creative Sports Marketing struck a 51-event deal with Prime Ticket, a regional cable network, that will include three Big West softball games.

Those have been the most visible hallmarks of a busy first year, but Haney made his presence notable in other ways.

Last spring, he won the admiration of the league's sports information directors by sitting through a tedious planning meeting before the track championships at Logan, Utah.

He has started a 12,000-circulation tabloid newspaper about the conference, and has been very visible at events, not only at schools near the Big West's offices in Santa Ana, but also in Logan and in Las Cruces, N.M., the nether reaches of the conference.

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