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Whither The Mid-Con?

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The Mid-Continent Conference is in trouble. Big trouble. This year's departures of Chicago State and Valparaiso have left the NCAA Division I conference with seven members. The trouble arises from the NCAA's Bylaws, specifically Bylaw Additional Requirements, Men's Basketball. The member conference must include seven core institutions. For the purposes of this legislation, core refers to an institution that has been an active member of Division I the eight preceding years. Further, the continuity-of-membership requirement shall be met only if a minimum of six core institutions have conducted conference competition together in Division I the preceding five years in men's basketball. There shall be no exception to the five-year waiting period. Any new member added to a member conference that satisfies these requirements shall be immediately eligible to represent the conference as the automatic qualifier. (Revised: 8/14/90, 12/3/90, 4/27/00, 4/29/04 effective 8/1/04) Grace Period. A conference shall remain eligible for automatic qualification for two years following the date of withdrawal of the institution(s) that causes the conference's membership to fall below seven institutions, or below six members with continuity of membership, provided the conference maintains at least six Division I members. (Adopted: 4/27/00; Revised 4/29/04 effective 8/1/04). Exceptions.
(a) Prior to September 1, 2003, the eight-year core principle does not apply to an institution that was a Division I active member, provisional member, or a member in the process of reclassifying to Division I as of April 27, 2000. Such an institution would be subject to the provisions in effect in April 27, 2000. The institution may continue to be considered a core institution subsequent to September 1, 2003, even if the institution has not been an active member of Division I the eight preceding years. Revised: 11/01/01)

The Mid-Continent conference added Centenary College in the 2003-04 academic year. This means that Centenary is not yet a "core institution" for the conference. Centenary becomes a core institution for the Mid-con in 2008-09. In the meantime, the Mid-Continent is down to six core institutions--the bare minimum necessary to maintain their all-important automatic bid to the NCAA men's basketball tournament--the largest single source of income for college athletics. If one of the six other schools in the Mid-Continent (Oakland University, Indiana U-Purdue U-Indianapolis (IUPUI), Western Illinois, Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Oral Roberts, or Southern Utah) departs the conference before the 2007-08 academic year, the two-year grace period would technically be triggered.

The danger to the conference is real and immediate. Valparaiso University, historically the most successful men's basketball school in the league, jumped from the Mid-Continent to the Horizon citing the onerous travel required by the far-flung Mid-Continent. With members spread from Utah to Michigan, the Mid-Continent is among the least geographically focused conferences in NCAA Division I. So while the conference needs to expand immediately, it also must deal with geography in such a way that it loses no more members.

The Candidates

The best of all possible solutions would be to take a member from another conference in the same way that the Horizon League poached Valparaiso from the Mid-Continent Conference. Unfortunately, the Mid-Con is not a particularly strong men's basketball conference. In 2005-06, Jeff Sagarin's popular power rankings placed the Mid-Con at #25 of 31 Division I conferences. No Mid-Continent conference school was rated in Sagarin's top 100. So while it is possible that the Mid-Continent might persuade the member of another Division I conference to move into the Mid-Con, it is not likely.

Fortunately for the Mid-Continent, there are several good candidate universities that are currently playing as independent Division I members. Some are in the process of transition from Division II while others are full D-I members.

Indiana-Purdue-Ft. Wayne (IPFW): IPFW is a full Division I member which has long sought Mid-Continent membership. Because it was in the process of reclassifying to Division I in 2000, the eight-year requirement does not apply to IPFW. So, only the five-year continuity-of-membership criterion would apply to IPFW.

North Dakota State (NDSU): A reclassifying institution from NCAA Division II, North Dakota State becomes a full Division I member in the 2008-09 academic year. South Dakota State and NDSU are the last two 1862 Morill Land-Grant universities in the lower 48 states to be Division I institutions. Most Land-Grants are major universities in the power conferences such as the Pac-10, Big 10, SEC, and Big XII conferences. NDSU has traditionally emphasized its football program in athletics, but fields strong teams in most of the 7 men's and 7 women's sports in which the Bison compete.

South Dakota State (SDSU): Almost identical in size and academics to North Dakota State, SDSU is located in a classic college town instead of in a small metropolitan area. In contrast to NDSU, SDSU's flagship athletic program has been men's basketball, which was a perennial participant in the Division II playoffs. Paradoxically, it is this program which has struggled the most in its transition to Division I. SDSU offers athletic programs in nine men's and ten women's sports.

Texas-Pan American (TPAU): Like IPFW, TPAU was a Division I institution in 2000, meaning that only the five-year continuity-of-membership criterion would apply if the Mid-Continent granted membership to TPAU.

Utah Valley State College (UVSC): In Orem, Utah just south of Salt Lake City, Utah Valley State will become championship-eligible in 2009-10, a year behind SDSU and NDSU. The main advantage of UVSC is as a travel partner for Southern Utah.

Dark Horses

The North Central Conference is a Division II conference, and has historically been among the strongest at that level of competition. The departures of Northern Colorado in 2003 and of North Dakota State and South Dakota State in 2004 have resulted in significant difficulties for the NCC. The conference has been forced by these departures to bring in as associate members for football two Washington State universities, Central Washington and Western Washington. So for football, the NCC stretches from the Mississippi River to almost the Puget Sound on the Pacific Ocean. That geographic alignment is difficult enough for a Division I conference, and is even more challenging for the smaller-budget Division II NCC.

The real tipping point for the NCC will be when North Dakota departs the conference for Division I. North Dakota's President currently has a recommendation from their Athletic Director to move all of its athletic programs to the Division I level. Certainly it has the facilities to accomplish that move, courtesy an enormous donation from a Las Vegas alumni and booster that funded a first-class arena for UND's successful D-I men's hockey program. UND has obtained a one-month extension of the deadline to announce an exploratory year from June 1 to July 1, 2006. Such a move seems to support the notion that the university is likely to begin the reclassification process in 2006.

Should North Dakota decide to reclassify to Division I, the remaining six NCC schools will then be forced to choose: remain in Division II and re-build the NCC, find alternate D-II conference memberships, or move up to Division I. Of the six, the only school for whom Division I is probably not a reasonable option is Augustana College, a Lutheran college with about 2,000 students and an athletic history which is on the whole average at best. The other five schools are all state institutions, three in Minnesota, one in each of South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska.

Minnesota-Duluth is the newest member of the NCC, having moved over from the Division II Northern Sun conference in 2005. UMD competes at the D-I level in hockey, as do St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato, and Nebraska-Omaha in the NCC. The UMD Bulldogs are generally considered the next least likely (after Augustana) to consider a full Division I membership any time in the near future.

St. Cloud State on the other hand is rumored to be the most likely after UND to seriously consider a Division I reclassification. The Huskies have a relatively strong athletic program across the board, and have the benefit of proximity to the burgeoning Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Minnesota State-Mankato is in many ways similar to St. Cloud State, but there has been less buzz about that school's possible Division I future than St. Cloud State. Both universities have enrollments well over 10,000 and otherwise fit the profile of the average Division I institution.

Nebraska-Omaha has seen athletic success at the Division II level, but its largest impediment to Division I success lies an hour southeast, in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers are a religion in Nebraska, to an extent that is equaled in few states. Creighton University, also in Omaha, provides additional stiff competition for the Division I fan's attention in eastern Nebraska, making the marketing for a D-I UNO very troublesome indeed. The Mavericks have had some niche marketing success with their D-I hockey program, but it's not at all certain that an all-sports Division I UNO would be able to extend that success across the athletic department. The more likely option should the North Central Conference implode is that UNO would seek membership in the strong Division II Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAA).

The MIAA may be the preferred option as well for the University of South Dakota, should the NCC collapse. Significantly smaller than in-state rival SDSU, USD is a classic state-supported liberal arts university, located in a very small college town in the extreme southeast corner of the state. To this date, the USD administration has held to a Division II philosophy for its athletic programs, with their emphasis going instead towards enhancing the school's academic reputation. Still, a gradual market/mindshare loss to sister institution SDSU may eventually prod USD alumni and fans toward renewed consideration of Division I.

Back to the Mid-Con

The root of the Mid-Continent's ongoing difficulties is the lack of a geographic "heartland." Most successful Division I conferences have a definite geographic identity. The original AMCU conference had a definite geographic identity with institutions in the states surrounding Chicago, where the conference's offices still reside. With the great defection of AMCU teams to the Midwestern Cities Conference (now the Horizon League) in 1994, the Mid-Continent became geographically unfocused with members stretching from the East Coast to the Midwest. Subsequently, the conference moved to the west, losing its easternmost members and gaining Oral Roberts in Oklahoma and Southern Utah. To the extent that the conference had a "heartland," the central Great Lakes states of Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan represented the core of the conference.

The departure of Chicago State and Valparaiso from the Mid-Continent in 2006 removed Chicago from the Mid-Con map and further exacerbated the conference's geographic dispersion problem. Now with seven members stretching from Detroit almost to Las Vegas, the Mid-Continent had lost the slim wisp of geographic coherence it once had.

Roadmap to a Coherent Conference

The Mid-Continent Conference has two problems: immediate survival, and long-term coherence. Immediate survival is addressed by ensuring that no further current members leave the conference, and by bringing in new members which complement existing members geographically and athletically. Offering Mid-Con membership to Indiana-Purdue-Ft. Wayne is about as close to a no-brainer as you're likely to see in Division I conference memberships. This gives Oakland University and IUPUI another member on the eastern edge of the conference. Being an institution that's exempt from the NCAA's eight-year core membership criterion, IPFW provides much-needed stability as well.

Utah Valley State also emerges as a surprisingly reasonable addition to the Mid-Continent. Close to the rapidly growing Salt Lake City metropolitan area, UVSC provides a reasonable travel partner for Southern Utah University. The difference in cost between the flight for a single game at Southern Utah, and two games at SUU and at Utah Valley State make the Wolverines a worthy addition to the Mid-Continent.

Never before has a weak conference such as the Mid-Continent had the opportunity to bring in not one but two 1862 Morrill Land Grant universities, but that is the case in 2006. North Dakota State and South Dakota State have made no secret of their preference for the Division I-AA football-playing Big Sky Conference, but it's not likely that either institution would turn down a Mid-Continent membership. Both institutions take their Land-Grant status very seriously, both academically and athletically. The Mid-Continent with two members who truly see as their peer institutions Kansas State, Minnesota, and Nebraska will instantly improve the conference's overall reputation.

So, if the Mid-Con offers memberships to all four of these institutions and all four accept membership, the Mid-Con becomes an 11-member league. Since the Mid-Continent does not offer football, an odd number creates serious scheduling difficulties. Even numbers are much more desirable, as this allows the conference to designate travel partners and offer more economical road trips for the member schools.

Hello, Texas-Pan American. This long-time Division I school was dismissed from the Sun Belt Conference in 1998 following serious NCAA violations, the Broncs have wandered in the wilderness of D-I Independence since that time. But now, with the Mid-Continent in critical condition, luck may have at last smiled on the team from Edinburg. Adding UTPA and the other four schools mentioned above gives the Mid-Continent twelve members, with travel partners which are if not advantageous, at least reasonable:

Oakland and IPFW
IUPUI and Western Illinois
UMKC and Oral Roberts
Centenary and Texas-Pan American
North Dakota State and South Dakota State
Southern Utah and Utah Valley State

From Survival to Success

Taking in five new members does not solve the Mid-Continent Conference's problems, it only postpones them. The easternmost members, Oakland and IUPUI, will increasingly have other options for conference membership as time goes on. The widely speculated split between the football-playing schools and the basketball-only schools of the Big East is expected in 2010, when the Big East's television contract comes up for renewal. If this happens, it will ripple across the country even more significantly than the defection of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC and the subsequent raid of the Big East on Conference-USA remade the college conference landscape in 2004 through 2006.

North Dakota State and South Dakota State will continue to feel a pull toward an all-sports conference that offers football. The Great West Football Conference is largely administered by the Mid-Continent, but is a marginal Division I-AA football conference with only five members: NDSU, SDSU, Southern Utah of the Mid-Con, and football independents UC-Davis and Cal Poly. More GWFC members are required to provide a stable football home for NDSU, SDSU, and SUU.

The relative geographic isolation of Southern Utah, Utah Valley State, and Texas-Pan American in a 12-team Mid-Con will also pose continuing problems for the conference. Finally, while Centenary has a long and storied history as the first college west of the Mississippi River and a long-time Division I school, it is facing increasing challenges to compete at the Division I level, even in the relatively weak Mid-Continent.

The solution to the long-term survival of the Mid-Continent conference is to go north. Addition of four Division-II North Central Conference schools to the Mid-Con: North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota State-Mankato, and South Dakota, provides a solid geographic core to a revitalized Mid-Continent Conference which could eventually look to replicate the success of the Missouri Valley Conference in men's basketball. It also stabilizes the Great West Football Conference as the football-playing affiliate of the Mid-Con.

If the Mid-Continent brought in the five schools named above in 2007-08, North Dakota and St. Cloud State in 2008-09, and Minnesota State and South Dakota in 2009-10, this is how the conference's continuity-of-membership situation would play out this way:

2006-07: 7 members--IUPUI, Oakland, Oral Roberts, Southern Utah, UMKC, Valparaiso, Western Illinois

2007-08: 6 members--IUPUI, Oakland, Oral Roberts, SUU, UMKC, Western Illinois (two-year NCAA auto-bid grace period begins)

2008-09 to 2009-10: 7 members--Centenary, IUPUI, Oakland, Oral Roberts, SUU, UMKC, WIU

2010-11 to 2015-16: 9 members--Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, Oakland, Oral Roberts, SUU, Texas-Pan American, UMKC, WIU

2016-17: 11 members--Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, North Dakota St., Oakland, Oral Roberts, South Dakota St., SUU, TPAU, UMKC, WIU

2017-18: 12 members--Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, NDSU, Oakland, Oral Roberts, SDSU, SUU, TPAU, UMKC, Utah Valley St., WIU

2020-21: 14 members--Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, NDSU, Oakland, Oral Roberts, St. Cloud St., SDSU, SUU, TPAU, UMKC, U. of North Dakota, UVSC, WIU

2021-22: 16 members--Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, Minnesota St., NDSU, Oakland, Oral Roberts, SCSU, SDSU, TPAU, UMKC, UNC, U. of South Dakota, UVSC, WIU

The Mid-Continent Conference's men's basketball NCAA Tournament automatic bid is currently at extreme risk. Under this timetable, if no further membership losses occur, that risk would begin to abate with the 2008-09 season. In 2008, the two-year grace period kicks in, carrying the conference into the 2010 season when IPFW and Texas-Pan American will have been in the conference for five years.

There are no guarantees in Division I college athletics. One thing that is certain is that the Mid-Continent, should it survive to 2021, will not have the membership shown here. Any of the colleges may follow Valparaiso and seek a conference with more amenable competitive environment or travel situation. Other schools like Central Missouri State or Washburn may test the Division I waters and find a home. But one thing is certain: much has to go right and little can go wrong for the Mid-Continent Conference in the next couple of years if it is to survive. The short-term membership problem requires the Mid-Con to add IPFW, Texas-Pan American, and Utah Valley State. A long-term survival strategy moving the heartland of the conference into the Upper Midwest could provide long-term stability for the Mid-Continent Conference.