Newman looks for a new athletics home as Heartland Conference disbands

Former Newman men’s basketball coach Mark Potter, right, talks to his players prior in the locker room before a game last season. Potter retired after the season.
Former Newman men’s basketball coach Mark Potter, right, talks to his players prior in the locker room before a game last season. Potter retired after the season. Correspondent

Newman University needs a new home for its athletic teams in two years.

“There’s not going to be a Heartland Conference,” Newman athletic director Vic Trilli said. “We’re pursuing a lot of opportunities and I have every confidence this university is going to be in a great place.”

On Tuesday evening, Newman announced its intentions to explore other conferences, knowing the Heartland was about to announce its demise. On Wednesday, the other eight members of the conference announced they plan to join the Lone Star Conference for the 2019-20 seasons. Newman, Trilli said, was included in talks with the Lone Star for the past three years before deciding to go its own way.

“We’re just going in a different direction,” he said.

Newman’s first choice is obvious, although Trilli declined to speak in specifics regarding a new conference.

The MIAA is home to Kansas’ other NCAA Division II schools Emporia State, Washburn, Pittsburg State and Fort Hays State. It has 14 members in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Trilli said he sent a letter to the MIAA in 2008 expressing Newman’s interest and he is on the record as recently as 2016 stating his desire to house the Jets with those in-state schools.

MIAA membership would offer Newman decreased travel costs, fewer missed classes and an increase in interest from fans.

MIAA commissioner Mike Racy said school presidents requested that expansion be placed on the agenda for meetings in January, well before the Heartland Conference decided to disband. That is likely an opening for those schools to discuss Newman or other expansion possibilities. Racy said the MIAA rule that a school must sponsor football may also be discussed.

“The fact that Newman is weighing options is important and could be part of the considerations our conference presidents have,” Racy said. “Some in our conference believe (14) is not a great number for scheduling purposes. If there is interest in 16, do we have to stay with schools that have football?”

Newman does not sponsor football. MIAA members Southwest Baptist and Lincoln, both Missouri schools, play basketball and other sports in the MIAA. The MIAA allows those schools to play football in the Great Lakes Valley Conference.

“I don't know if that opens the door to presidents in our league being more comfortable now that football isn't required,” Racy said.

Athletic directors at Washburn, Emporia State and Pittsburg State referred questions about Newman and conference expansion to the MIAA. Fort Hays State did not respond to an email.

“Emporia State enjoys playing Newman in several sports,” Hornets athletic director Kent Weiser wrote in an email. “They have quality programs and the short travel time is a plus, but that’s just the ESU point of view.”

Newman and the other schools will compete in the Heartland for the next two years. Trilli will spend that time finding a more geographically suitable home for his sports in time for the 2019-2020 seasons. The Heartland consists of nine schools — five in Texas, two in Oklahoma and one each in Kansas and Arkansas. Newman joined in 2008, its first year of full NCAA Division II membership.

Conference membership includes Dallas Baptist, Texas A&M International, Arkansas-Fort Smith, Oklahoma Christian, Lubbock Christian and Rogers (Okla.) State. Those schools will expand the Lone Star to a 19-team conference.

“We’re going to find something that works for Newman,” Trilli said. “At that time (2008) it worked; at this time it’s not going to work.”

Trilli said he believes Newman’s improvements in recent years will make it an attractive candidate. He aims for more growth, tapping a stack of plans for facility upgrades with his hand while he talks.

“I’m really excited about the options, to tell you the truth,” he said. “We’re a whole lot different program than we were when I got here in 2008.”

Trilli is counting on a philosophy in NCAA Division II that often opens doors to schools to cut costs and reduce missed class time because of travel.

“Division II is a division that built on the idea of regionalization,” Racy said. “The magic and the great thing about Division II is that intercollegiate athletics is still fully integrated into higher education.”

Newman may also consider at least two other conferences.

The 15-team Great Lakes Valley Conference includes Missouri schools Rockhurst, William Jewell and Drury and stretches to Wisconsin, Indiana and Kentucky. The Great American Conference harbors 12 schools in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop