In 1970, the death started to drain from the Missouri Valley Conference.
Cincinnati left that year. Others followed and by 1975 many of the schools who made up the “Valley of Death” lineup exited for bigger things. Tulsa joined the departures in 1996.
Wichita State stayed, looking longingly at those schools. While the MVC provided a stable home since 1945 and great moments, it just wasn’t the same.
On Saturday, Wichita State takes a step forward and back. It officially joins the American Athletic Conference as a basketball and Olympic sports member. It reunites with Cincinnati, Memphis and Tulsa, in addition to former MVC member Houston. The other members offer a diverse menu of tradition, football and vacation spots: Connecticut, Temple, East Carolina, Central Florida, South Florida, Tulane, SMU and football-only Navy.
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Shocker fans of all ages take a deep breath and say “Finally. This is where we belong.”
University president John Bardo felt that way in early June at American Athletic Conference meetings in Florida. The conversations focused on ambitions, on paying top dollar for coaches, on matching Power 5 conferences in policies such as stipends for athletes in all sports and increasing media revenue.
“They saw (Wichita State) as part of their strategy for claiming their place in the pantheon of athletics,” he said. “They were thinking about their long-term goals, as opposed to ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ ”
If those conversations happened among MVC schools, issues such as travel costs, dropping sports, budget cuts and enrollment losses stymied their direction. It became, especially after the departure of Creighton in 2013, a group of schools often focused on survival instead of progress.
Bardo respects the mission and accomplishments of the MVC schools and appreciates WSU’s 72-year history. He sees Wichita State in a different category athletically and more suited to partner in all ways with schools in big cities.
“Most of the things we wanted to talk about weren’t being talked about,” Bardo said. “I want to know how we win a national championship. I’m glad to be in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a good thing. I want to understand how we win a national championship. Most of the people I talked with in the American want to know how they’re going to win a national championship. That’s a different conversation.”
Bardo wanted grander goals and he knows his constituents do as well.
“It’s exciting to see Wichita and what Wichita State is be exposed to different parts of the country,” said Breck Towner, Student Government Association vice president. “To have it all the way in Florida, to have it in Connecticut. Houston. Cincinnati. We’re looking at such a broader reach.”
The older generations of Shockers can search their memories for epic men’s basketball battles with Cincinnati in the 1960s and Tulsa in the 1980s.
“Wichita State had outgrown the Missouri Valley,” said John Criss, a member of the 1965 Final Four team. “In the Valley, they were continually looked at as second tier. Now the schedule is going to look more like a major conference, big time.”
That goal consumes American commissioner Mike Aresco, who believes his conference deserves a spot in the NCAA’s top power structure.
Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12) are allowed by the NCAA to set their own rules — such as stipends or comprehensive meal plans for athletes — without interference from smaller conferences. Those five conferences make most of the money, mostly because of football, and set the standard for college athletics.
Other conferences are free to follow their rules, if they can. For example, MVC schools pay cost-of-attendance stipends for men’s and women’s basketball athletes, but not all sports. WSU pays full cost of attendance for all sports.
The cost of keeping up with the Power 5 is immense and the American wants people to know it is trying harder than the rest. That goal is highlighted by the “Power 6” campaign that aims to relocate the American farther from conferences such as the Mountain West, Conference USA and Mid-American and closer to the Power 5.
“We’re on our own separate line and we’re approaching them,” Aresco said. “We’re a lot different from the (smaller) conferences. I think that’s an important step and that’s already been taken.”
The American formed out of the Big East in 2013 and its accomplishments suggest a level of power that conferences such as the Sun Belt and Conference USA can’t match. Connecticut won the 2014 men’s NCAA basketball title and its women’s team won national titles in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Central Florida won the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. American teams regularly earn NCAA at-large bids in baseball, softball, basketball and other sports.
“This is a very ambitious conference,” Aresco said. “This ‘P6’ thing is not some mirage. It’s real. We think that, ultimately, if we keep hammering away, we keep doing what we’re doingn and keep competing at the high level we’re competing at, that will come to fruition down the road. The first thing you have to do is cement the notion you’re a Power 6 conference. That’s TV deal. That’s the kind of bowl games you play in … the revenue you generate … whether you’re paying cost of attendance, the size of your markets.”
MVC schools won reached 15 Final Fours and won four NCAA men’s basketball titles and four NIT between 1945 and 1975. Hall of Fame coaches created those peak years. So did an emphasis on basketball, a willingness to recruit African-American athletes and junior college athletes when many schools did not. The tactics are different now, but the American must be innovative and aggressive to compete with schools that possess more history and more resources.
American football schools, according to numerous reports, earn $2 million from the conference TV package. That payout is overshadowed by the roughly $30-40 million earned annually by Power 5 conferences.
“I compare us to JetBlue and Southwest Airlines,” Aresco said. “We play Thursdays and Fridays (football). We hire young assistants. We are willing to schedule differently in order to compete and get the exposure we need. We still feel like we can be a major conference by doing that.”
What binds the American schools, Aresco said, is that desire to run with the big boys. There is a difference. No American team advanced out of a baseball or softball regional. No current member played in the baseball College World Series as an American school. The conference owns one NCAA volleyball win in its four seasons.
“We can’t take a backseat,” he said. “We don’t want to slip into a kind of oblivion. You either compete at that level, or you take a step back, and we don’t want to do that.”
This is largely a football conversation, because football pays the bills at most schools. Wichita State’s job is to boost the American’s prestige with its powerful men’s basketball program. The American didn’t make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in March. It hasn’t ventured into the Final Four since 2014.
The American needs more at-large bids and more NCAA wins to generate revenue and respect. It has not gone unnoticed that its former friends in the Big East are enjoying more success in basketball, powered by Villanova’s 2016 title and seven NCAA bids in 2017.
“The term ‘Power 6’ was used quite a bit,” Shocker coach Gregg Marshall said. “In order to be Power 6, we’ve got to act like it.”
The American took in Wichita State because of its act, which stands up to Power 5 schools.
“No exclusive club like that is anxious to take in members,’ Aresco said. “If you really want to be viewed as ‘P6’ conference, you’ve really got to be good in men’s basketball and women’s basketball. We think Wichita has added a great deal.”
AROUND THE AAC IN MEN’S HOOPS
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RPI rank: 58
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2016-17 record: 30-6 (NCAA)
RPI rank: 12
NCAA Tournament appearances: 31 (2017)
Location: Storrs, Conn.
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RPI rank: 119
NCAA Tournament appearances: 33 (2016)
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2016-17 record: 15-18
RPI rank: 214
NCAA Tournament appearances: 2 (1993)
Coach: Kelvin Sampson
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RPI rank: 60
NCAA Tournament appearances: 19 (2010)
Coach: Tubby Smith
2016-17 record: 19-13
RPI rank: 116
NCAA Tournament appearances: 26 (2014)
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2016-17 record: 30-5 (NCAA)
RPI rank: 15
NCAA Tournament appearances: 12 (2017)
Coach: Brian Gregory
2016-17 record: 7-23
RPI rank: 316
NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (2012)
Coach: Fran Dunphy
2016-17 record: 16-16
RPI rank: 130
NCAA Tournament appearances: 32 (2016)
Location: New Orleans
Coach: Mike Dunleavy
2016-17 record: 6-25
RPI rank: 295
NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (1995)
Coach: Frank Haith
2016-17 record: 15-17
RPI rank: 133
NCAA Tournament appearances: 15 (2016)