State Colleges

KCAC’s football series against Heart of America finally becomes a reality

All that’s left is for KCAC commissioner Scott Crawford to decide which game he wants to go to.

Boiled down to something so simple, Crawford can’t help but laugh. After three years of working and planning and negotiating, that’s what’s left.

On Sept. 14, all 10 schools from the KCAC will host all 10 schools from the Heart of America Athletic Conference in football, with the KCAC returning the favor in 2014 by playing all the games at HAAC locations.

“It’s really put up or shut up time for us,” Crawford said. “Let’s go out and find where we stand against what might be the best conference in the nation. I hope it’s crazy, I hope it’s exciting …I hope it’s everything we’ve envisioned it to be. We’re not talking about a lot of fans, maybe 3,000 to 5,000 at each location hopefully, but we think it will be special, from the tailgating to the games to the opportunities to connect surrounding the games.”

Crawford and HAAC commissioner Larry Lady began working together in 2010 trying to put together the series, which was announced in July 2011. The biggest hurdle was overcome once the KCAC decided to permit its teams to play an 11th game starting with the 2011 season.

“The biggest issue was the scheduling was being done differently before, and it didn’t create opportunities to have a showcase like this,” Crawford said. “Now we have three dates in common to play those two preseason games, and one of those is dedicated to this series.”

The HAAC has three nationally-ranked schools in Kansas — No. 12 MidAmerica Nazarene, No. 14 Baker and No. 22 Benedictine, which travels to Friends. The matchup between the two conferences is set up by last year’s conference finish, meaning No. 11 Ottawa, the defending KCAC champion, will host No. 3 Missouri Valley, which lost to eventual NAIA champion Marian in last year’s national semifinals. MidAmerica will play at No. 18 Tabor.

Baker plays at Saint Mary. The HAAC’s other ranked school, No. 23 Evangel, plays at Kansas Wesleyan.

“The marriage between the two conferences is something that really could’ve happened a long time ago,” Lady said. “Our coaches are very excited that it’s finally come to be. It’s a natural fit.”

Forming bonds with the HAAC and the Great Plains Athletic Conference —based out of Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota —could be key to the survival of not only the KCAC but the NAIA in the midwest, with only 87 NAIA schools left that play football.

Crawford and KCAC assistant commissioner Rob Brennecke said overtures have been made to both conferences about setting up similar series in men’s and women’s basketball and soccer. And, with three years already invested in setting up this and next season’s football games, Crawford said he’d be disappointed if the season didn’t continue past that.

“I would be disappointed if we didn’t continue to play, if we couldn’t find a way to make the series keep going because it took a long time to get off the ground,” Crawford said. “It won’t be on our end if it doesn’t keep going, I can promise that. Historically, we haven’t had the same success over the last decade as (the HAAC). This is a true measuring stick.”

Lady said that as long as the leagues keep the same number of teams, he doesn’t see why not.

“A lot depends on our development …I know we’d like to add another team and I’m sure the KCAC has looked at expansion, too,” Lady said. “I can’t predict the future, but as long as we keep the same number of teams it would be wise to keep (the series) going.”

KCAC switches locations -- The KCAC’s football media day will be Aug. 7 at the Courtyard Marriott at Old Town, the first time it’s been held away from the Salina Country Club in the last 15 years. The move was made possible by KCAC corporate partner IMA Financial, which also sponsors the league’s Champions of Character initiative.

“IMA is one of our first true corporate partners and they’re actually sponsoring both football and basketball media days at the same location,” Crawford said. “We feel really strongly that Salina did a good job, but we also feel like this could be a step up. We wanted to throw a fresh twist into media day and we think this is it.”