KANSAS CITY, Mo. — What started as a nice, steady, peaceful dip for Doug Elgin is threatening to turn into the opening scene from “Jaws.” Here you are, minding your own business, knowing full well that it’s out there, lurking, and you won’t see it until it’s already taken a leg off. Duh-dum … Duh-dum …
“That certainly is something that we’re keeping a close eye on,” Elgin, commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, says of league realignment, the tectonic plates shifting in the circuits above and around him. “Does it worry me? Hell, yes. I’d hate to lose any one of our members. We have 10 members going together for 20 years now.”
Since 1995, only two major Division I basketball leagues have managed to retain the same stable of full-time members, the rarest of rare in a club where the buck is so happily chased. The Ivy League is one. The Valley is the other.
Elgin is justifiably proud of this, of course. He loves his status quo of 10, a compact, geographically contiguous swath that stretches from Kansas to Indiana, where being called a bus league isn’t an insult, but a term of honor, tradition and endearment. The Valley is what it is, with no greater ambitions than striving to be the best of whatever that is, however anachronistic that comes across.
But the football schools, the fatcats in the penthouse, are playing a different game by different rules, a corporate mentality disguised in robes of academia. Mega-conferences. Mergers. Takeovers. Shotgun marriages for profit. Maryland and Rutgers are eaten up by the Big Ten; Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville are eaten up by the ACC; Boise State and Tulane join the Big East. Money talks, geography walks, and eventually, the collateral damage is going to seep down to the little guys.
“I think there’s trickle-down everywhere,” says Creighton basketball coach Greg McDermott, whose Bluejays are believed to be a potential target for the Big East, or a possible basketball-only off-shoot of the aforementioned league. “But I think it goes against what college athletics stands for. You’ve got kids traveling all across the country, across time zones, when it doesn’t have to be that way … to me, it’s not what this is all about.”
McDermott’s boss, Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, has said that he likes where he is — the Jays have been continuous (and successful) members of the MVC since 1976, the Duke of the Valley to Wichita State’s North Carolina — but he also didn’t deny that a hypothetical consortium of like-minded, hoops-first private schools might be appealing. The Big East’s new commissioner, Mike Aresco, is a former television executive who thinks in broad strokes; he sees his conference as a national brand with a national footprint, despite an extremely provincial name.
“We’re planting the Big East flag in the Midwest,” Aresco told reporters in Chicago a few months back. “And we’re proud to do so.”
No wonder Elgin is splashing about, trying desperately to spot the next shark fin.
“I think there are scenarios that would lead to the loss of a member or two; there clearly are those,” he says. “But we’re not ducking into the bunker here. And (that’s) not to say that there isn’t any way to trump some of the options that might come along — we have ways to counter some scenarios that would be put out there for Creighton or other members to take advantage of. And, by the same token, we know that those tectonic plates might shift in another way that creates opportunities for us.”
Schools can leave the Valley without incurring a financial penalty, as long as they give at least two years’ notice. If it’s between a year and 23 months’ notice, they’ll be docked 50 percent of “distributable revenues.” If it’s sooner than a year, they’ll receive none of those revenues.
“I personally think, at this point and time, it would be a mistake for us to entertain going anywhere,” says McDermott, a Northern Iowa alum who’s taken two different member schools — UNI and Creighton — to the NCAA Tournament. “I’m not sure I get a vote. You’ve got to trust the people that are in charge, and I do. And I think everybody on our campus understands that we’re in a really good place. I think Creighton has been great for the Valley, and I think the Valley has also been great for Creighton.”
For the Jays, it’s a question of being The Big Fish versus being Just Another Fish. And, given a choice, Elgin would prefer — strongly, passionately — to keep the status quo. Still, in an environment where maintaining the status quo seems passé, defensive, and even dangerous, you have to be prepared for the worst. Even the little guys have a short list of potential replacements, same as any administrator who’s got a football coach with caviar dreams and wandering eyes.
The Valley reportedly distributes roughly $300,000 to each member school in television payouts. The big money-maker for the league is NCAA tourney units; Elgin says those chunks account for 75-80 percent of the league’s annual revenue. So while BCS conferences such as the Big Ten are targeting specific television markets as opposed to schools, a mid-major circuit such as the Valley would be looking at men’s basketball programs in the Plains and the Great Lakes with a track record of consistent Big Dance berths.
Elgin won’t divulge hypothetical targets, but the logical candidates are obvious: Former MVC members such as Butler, Tulsa and Saint Louis would figure to sit atop the wish list, while names such as Milwaukee, Denver, Loyola (Ill.), Wright State, North Dakota State and Nebraska-Omaha have also been kicked around by league administrators.
“I’m opposed to expansion unless the institutions were able to strengthen our league,” Elgin says. “We don’t need numbers. We need strength.
“And I can say this, too: There is not a single institution in our league that we would like to see leave, top to bottom. We’ve got a great league, great geography. This the way college athletics should be, I would think.”
It should be. It isn’t. Elgin is a native of Hagerstown, Md., a man with proud ACC roots. When the Terrapins, ACC founding members, announced their move to the Big Ten last month, and made no secret about money being a motivator in the process, that hit Elgin hard, on several levels.
“It hurts,” he says. “It’s not a family anymore. I spent three years in Virginia as the sports information director when Ralph Sampson was there. I can remember feeling some dismay when the league expanded in the time frame that I was there — Georgia Tech came in, maybe in 1979. You know, I think it’s clear that change is here to stay. The old tradition doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning to people that haven’t lived it. I think you’re seeing that with the presidents, the athletic administrators, the boards that are making decisions for athletic programs.
“The ACC has obviously taken from others, and I guess there are no rules in realignments now, in terms of what’s fair and what’s right. And it’s being dictated by economic factors. To me, that’s sad and depressing, to think we’ve come to that.”
But at the same time, Elgin also knows it’s too late to turn back. There’s blood in the water now, and that only means one thing: More sharks are coming.