Nestled in a corner office on the second floor of Wichita’s downtown Market Centre, KCAC commissioner Scott Crawford is a man in motion.
And the fifth-year commissioner — the first full-time commissioner in the league’s history — has big plans for the future.
“I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” said Crawford, who has four degrees, including a PhD in Educational Leadership and Organizational Administration from Louisville. “It’s fun building something.”
What Crawford has built, so far, is a league that is knocking on the door of the NAIA’s elite conferences. Sparked by Crawford’s brainchild, the Sports Regulation Initiative, which brought the KCAC in line with the NAIA’s limitations as far as off-season practices and amount of games teams could schedule, the 10-team league has already made inroads on the national level.
In the first year KCAC schools could take advantage of both extra games and practices, the McPherson College men’s basketball team made it to the Final Four in the NAIA Division II Tournament in March.
In women’s basketball, three teams — Southwestern, Sterling and Friends — earned berths in the national tournament.
In baseball, the league had two teams — Sterling and Tabor — come within one game of the NAIA World Series by reaching regional championships, including Tabor hosting a regional in Hutchinson. No KCAC team has ever made the NAIA World Series.
“I don’t think there’s any question (the SRI) has helped,” McPherson men’s basketball coach Tim Swartzendruber said. “Just the opportunity to work with players more and play more games. It will be interesting to see how things evolve … what you’re seeing now is the KCAC develop more respect on a national level in a number of sports, where in the past I don’t think we’ve received a lot of respect.”
Part of that lack of respect came in recruiting — especially in the state of Kansas. Before the SRI, teams from the Jayhawk Conference and the MIAA that were competing for some of the same athletes could simply point to the lack of offseason programs and extra games an athlete would play if they went to a KCAC school. That is no longer the case.
“We felt like our schools were being recruited negatively against because they weren’t up to speed,” Crawford said. “But those stigmas have been eliminated.”
Many credit Crawford, who now also has a full-time assistant in Robert Brennecke, as the man who helped bring the league into the 21st century. Before, the league was run by a committee of the league’s 10 athletic directors.
“Up to that point we’d run the league’s business side through the athletic directors, who were trying to do it in addition to their full-time jobs,” said Tabor athletic director Rusty Allen, the chair of the KCAC’s governing council. “Now we have somebody who spends their days with an eye on social media, with an eye on marketing and increasing revenue streams and making our championship events a signature experience for athletes.
“Just that move to hire a full-time conference commissioner helped improve our reputation immediately.”
Now, the biggest question for the KCAC leaders moving forward are scholarships and expansion. And when a team from the KCAC will finally break through and win a national title.
Crawford said the 10-team league is open to expanding up to 16 teams, but that schools must be a “perfect fit” — meaning they must meet the league’s academic standards, be faith-based institutions … and they must have football. The football part is non-negotiable.
Because of the SRI, the KCAC now allows its teams to play 11 regular-season games, conduct full-padded spring football practices and have a spring game.
“I don’t believe any college can attain all that it can attain without a strong football program,” Friends football coach Monty Lewis said. “It has to be on the front burner of every KCAC school. It has to be a positive part of the school, and, I say, winning.”
Scholarships are a little trickier. The NAIA allows for full rides but KCAC schools don’t. Assuming the full rides would extend to all sports, that could cause problems in a conference where only two schools — Southwestern and Friends — routinely have an enrollment of more than 1,000 undergraduate students.
“Scholarships have improved across the board,” Allen said. “But that could be one of the benefits of expanding … we have more exposure, we improve athletically and our enrollment goes up. You get a bigger name, you have better branding. When you’re talking about small schools like ours, going from 600 or 700 to 1,000 students could be a big deal.”
And as far as a national title?
“I don’t think a national title is a realistic goal right now,” Crawford said. “I’m not saying it could never happen, but that would be a long ways off.”