The Next Step for the Mid-Continent Conference
by Andrew Flynn
The Mid-Continent Conference is reeling, having just lost one of its more storied programs in founding-member Valparaiso to its geographic rival, the Horizon League. This news comes less than a month after another Mid-Con member institution, Chicago State, announced they were leaving the conference and would compete as a D-I Independent next season.
So why the change for Valpo, where they’ve been a power for the past 24 seasons? In a statement, Valparaiso president Dr. Alan F. Harre cited the geographic centralization of the Horizon League membership. “The transition to the Horizon League means less time will be needed by our student-athletes as they travel to and from competition, and it means they will miss fewer classes. Shorter travel also means less fatigue and increased concentration in the classroom.” In the Mid-Con, Valparaiso faced travel to Utah, Louisiana, and Oklahoma as part of its conference slate.
Geographically, the farthest point in the Horizon league from Valparaiso is Youngstown State, at 360 miles, but in the adjacent state of Ohio. In contrast, the distances were much farther in the Mid-Con, with UMKC 560 miles away, Oral Roberts 710 miles, Centenary 880 miles distant, and Southern Utah over 1600 miles away.
Valparaiso, 17-12 last season, will also play in a tougher basketball conference, with “mid-major” powers Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Butler. Things might not come so easily, as Valparaiso has made seven appearances in the NCAA Tournament since 1996, including a dramatic trip to the Sweet 16 in 1998.
So what of the Mid-Con? Now Western Illinois is the only original Mid-Con member school still in the conference. Valpo joins (belatedly) Cleveland State, UIC and Wisconsin-Green Bay in the Horizon League. Other members (Missouri State, Northern Iowa) joined the Missouri Valley, and Eastern Illinois sought representation with the Ohio Valley. The problems began in 1994, when six schools left the conference, to be replaced (seemingly at random) by a collection of geographically diverse institutions. 1994-95 saw the addition of Buffalo, Central Connecticut State, Chicago State, UMKC, Northeastern Illinois and Troy State, with all but UMKC jumping the Mid-Con ship at some point. Additional expansions included Oral Roberts and Southern Utah in 1997-98, IUPUI and Oakland in 1998-99, and most recently Centenary in 2003-04.
Mid-Con Commissioner Tom Douple said in a statement, “The conference will immediately explore all of the options available for the future. We will make decisions based on what is best for our current membership and the long term viability of the Mid-Continent Conference.” No foolin’, Tom – you’ll only have seven teams and lose your automatic bid otherwise!
For the past decade, it seems as though schools have been treating the Mid-Con as sort of an introductory course to D-I, before they move on to greener pastures. There is no exclusivity. There is no cachet. There is (seemingly) no plan. To that end, I have three possible directions that Mr. Douple and the fine folks at Mid-Con headquarters in Elmhurst, Illinois should consider.
Plan A – Status Quo
This plan is simple, and should be the most familiar to everyone involved – keep the status quo, and keep the geographic center of the conference a moving target. Since the news of Valpo’s departure broke, Indiana-Purdue Ft. Wayne has claimed that they’re on the short list for being admitted into the Mid-Con (even though they were passed over two years ago). According to the Ft. Wayne News-Sentinel, IPFW, as well as North Dakota State and South Dakota State have been asked by the Mid-Con to submit information about the school and its athletic programs.
That measure would indeed make for a ten-team conference, which would help the Mid-Con keep its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but I’m not so sure both North and South Dakota State should jump, when other maneuvering might lead them towards an all-sport membership, perhaps in a future expanded Big Sky, which would also offer football. Perhaps the Mid-Con should throw in the towel.
Plan B – Disband
At this point, the seven unclaimed Mid-Con schools should have no trouble attracting other conference affiliations, especially if formerly strained relations are left as mere bygones. Some possibilities:
Centenary moves to the Sun Belt. I’m sure the Sun Belt would be happy to have Centenary as a member, especially since there are several non-football schools already in the conference. The Gents, with the Chief, Robert Parrish as a notable alumus, and a school overall record 7 games over .500 would be a fine addition. Less likely would be a return to the Atlantic Sun, based purely on geography, as well as any leftover grudges following the school’s departure.
Oakland and IUPUI join the Horizon. In this scenario, the Horizon League gains two more Midwestern metropolitan universities as they move up to 12 teams overall. An extra benefit would be the creation of key home-and-home rivalry matchups: IUPUI and Butler (both in Indianapolis) and Oakland and Detroit (both in metropolitan Detroit). Additionally, we would have UW-Milwaukee vs. UW-Green Bay, UIC vs Loyola-Chicago, Cleveland State vs. Youngstown State, and Wright State versus… well, Valparaiso. It almost works out.
Western Illinois, UMKC and Oral Roberts join the Missouri Valley. Well, it makes sense geographically, as Oral Roberts pairs up nicely with Wichita State as a “not really in the Missouri Valley” squad. UMKC is as Missouri Valley as you can get, although the campus is several miles south of the actual river, Both Kansas City and Tulsa would be key metropolitan acquisitions in what would be considered Big 12 country. And Western Illinois wouldn’t be a bad geographic fit, either, though it would lead to an odd number of teams. A possible solution would be to go to 14 teams in two divisions by adding the former Mid-Con member Chicago State, thus adding yet another major metropolitan area to the MVC market.
Southern Utah to the Big Sky. This makes all kinds of sense. Along with new Big Sky member Northern Colorado, Southern Utah would create a southern tier of Big Sky schools, teaming up with existing member Northern Arizona. Southern Utah could leave the I-AA Great West football conference and jump to I-A in the Big Sky. The result would be ten teams in an attractive geographical array. Other D-I Independents, Utah Valley State (no football), and North and South Dakota State(s) would be possible expansion schools. [Ed. note: The Big Sky is a I-AA football conference, so the move wouldn't necessitate moving up a level.]
What hasn’t been mentioned is the most appealing aspect of the dissolution of the Mid-Continent Conference – a true field of 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Traditionally (since 1985), the tournament has always had 34 at-large bids. Trouble began with the introduction of the Mountain West Conference, following their split from the WAC. 31 conferences plus 34 at-large bids equals 65 teams. Get rid of the Mid-Con, and get back to 64 teams.
Plan C – The “D” League
The NBA has the development league to matriculate post-collegiate players to possible professional contracts in the CBA, Europe, and possibly the NBA. The Mid-Continent Conference should become the D-League of Division I. Think about it – the trend over the past decade has been for various institutions to start the five-year exploratory period towards becoming a Division-I program. Many of these schools have latched on to the Mid-Con until they have found a better suitor. The Mid-Con hasn’t generated any loyalty – Valpo was their example, and now the Crusaders are in bed with the Horizon League.
Let’s just formalize things and make the new “Mid-Con” the administrative and logistic support conference newly-minted D-I exploratory schools cling to until they get their feet wet. This new Mid-Con Development Conference would allow all of the D-1 Independents, the new transitional schools, and even schools “in-between” conferences to have a home, a place where they are fed and cared for – an orphanage, if you will. A central office for officiating, and heck, even a “tournament” which, thanks to the NCAA’s acquisition of the NIT, would guarantee the winner at least a postseason NIT bid, or even ensure that the winner gets to play in the Play-In game if Dayton demands that their 15 minutes are kept annually. The NCAA could even use the conference as a test-bed for new rules, whether it be the new banning of mid-air timeouts or the moving of the three-point line – they could be tried out under a controlled and regulated environment.
And each time an established conference was looking for a new addition to their family, they could come to the Mid-Con, browse the available schools, and select an NCAA-approved member institution to fulfill their round-robin scheduling dreams. Let’s take a look at the teams that would form this Mid-Con D League as of the end of the 2006-07 season:
| East Division
|| West Division
Florida Gulf Coast
New Jersey IT
North Carolina Central
South Carolina Upstate
North Dakota State
South Dakota State
Utah Valley State
Now some of these schools already have deals with conferences as associate members until they have full D-I status. Central Arkansas, North Carolina Central, and Presbyterian College all have deals in place with the Southland, MEAC, and Big South, respectively. Cal State Bakersfield and Winston-Salem State have “handshake” agreements with the Big West and MEAC, respectively. And this would be a boon to those non-affiliated teams to have a standardized schedule where standings and RPI figures could be generated for evaluation. It’s a radical suggestion, but it would help clean up all of the remnants of the conference shuffling that’s been going on for the past few offseasons, as well as provide a nurturing environment to these new D-I schools that are cropping up each year.
The Mid-Con is expected to vote on new members at its annual league meetings starting June 27th in Chicago. Commissioner Tom Douple has some thinking to do, with a few options to consider, and possible radical changes ahead for all of college basketball. That, or IPFW gets added.
Comments on this Article:
1. From Steven Rackley:
Enjoyed the article. Just an FYI – The Big Sky Conference is a IAA conference, which should even be more attractive to SUU.
2. From Rick Granger:
I’m going to mess us your East division of the Mid-Con. Florida Gulf Coast has already been accepted into the Atlantic Sun in 07-08…..
3. From Kevin Wilstrom:
Main problem with dissolving the Mid Con is that NCAA automatic bids are such a valuable commodity; regardless of how odd the 65 number seems for the tournament, you can bet that UMKC, Oral Roberts etc will cling by their fingernails to the Mid Con banner for that bid…why should they join much tougher conferences like the Missouri Valley, where the bid would be much tougher to get? Its far from certain that increased attendence would be enough in that league to offset the diminished NCAA odds.
A very plausible plan for the Mid Con is to push the Dakotas angle. Not sexy on a national level, but the 4 Dakota schools have bigger athletic budgets than most of the current Mid Con programs, and it would provide a good base for the league. Of course, this would require the Mid Con convincing North Dakota and South Dakota to jump to D1, but both schools are apparently under a lot of pressure to do so anyway because of alumni who cant stand being “beneath” NDS & SDS (so I have read).
Long term, Mid Con would probably consist of the 4 Dakota schools, UMKC, Oral Roberts, Western Illinois, possibly also Pan American and IPFW. Southern Utah will inevitably leave due to the travel issue, so there isnt much sense in having Utah Valley come aboard. I agree with you that Oakland and IUPUI will probably follow Valpo eventually, meaning that the Mid Con center of activity could move westward. By the way, I have never been to the Dakotas (am from Michigan) but that just seems like a logical path of survival for this league.
I do not agree that the Mid Con should be disbanded just so the NCAA can again have 64 teams; besides, you will likely see an increase in the number of play-in games one of these years anyways, it would be easy to envision one play in game per region, thus a tournament of (at least) 68 teams.