If Tommy Bell’s “a little bit big for their britches” comment voiced hidden resentments of Wichita State’s public athletic desires, those feelings remained hidden Tuesday.
Missouri Valley Conference administrators and coaches gathered for media day and Wichita State’s self-evaluation that could lead it out of the MVC served as a discussion topic. In December, WSU president John Bardo announced a study to investigate adding football and options for a new conference that better fit his university.
During a recent football pregame radio interview, Bell, Southern Illinois’ athletic director, said, “I think they’re a little bit big for their britches, and you can quote me on that.”
Bell said he called WSU athletic director Darron Boatright within an hour after the comment caused reaction. He regards former WSU president Don Beggs, former chancellor at SIU, a friend and considers Boatright one of the Valley’s ADs he is closest with.
“He’s kind of like my E.F. Hutton — he speaks and I listen,” Bell said in St. Louis. “Could I have framed it better? Maybe.”
Nobody — especially not Bell — disputes WSU’s success or its importance to the Valley.
We really understand and appreciate that Wichita State carries the banner for us as a conference right now.
Tommy Bell, Southern Illinois athletic director
Creighton’s departure in 2013 for the Big East adds to the potential cost of losing another leading member. In his most recent statements, Bardo said WSU was waiting on Big 12 expansion to see if its moves might open a spot in another conference. The Big 12 recently decided not to expand and other conferences — such as the American and Mountain West that may interest WSU — do not appear interested in expansion. Commissioners from both are on record that their conference requires football.
“We really understand and appreciate that Wichita State carries the banner for us as a conference right now,” Bell said. “At our institution, we understand that. Because our university did it 10-12 years ago.”
Perhaps more than anyone at media day, SIU men’s coach Barry Hinson wanted it understood he thinks highly of WSU’s accomplishments.
“When you have somebody in your league that is being considered for other conferences, I think it always bodes well for not only that institution, but it bodes well for our institution, as well,” he said.
Boatright said he considered relationships with other MVC athletic directors and schools solid. None of the four athletic directors interviewed questioned WSU’s engagement in conference operations.
“I don’t feel any resentment or hard feelings on the study that we’ve been conducting,” Boatright said. “Individually, they all get it. Collectively, I’m sure there is concern that if Wichita State were to depart the conference, what that would mean to them as a unit. But individually, put in the same situation, that each of them would do the exact same thing we’re doing.”
Several ADs agreed. While perhaps WSU’s ambition is irritating to some or viewed as unrealistic, it’s also the natural order of college athletics.
Do we want them stay? Sure. But, it’s up to them.
Larry Lyons, Illinois State athletics director
Evansville athletic director Mark Spencer went through conference changes while at Saint Louis and Oregon State. Bell said that SIU, quietly, evaluated conference options in between his departure in 2007 and his return in 2015. Commissioner Doug Elgin said the Valley takes calls from schools measuring his interest in expansion.
“It’s a part of athletics now,” Spencer said. “Quite honestly, nobody holds any grudges for (WSU) to do that kind of evaluation. Everybody has to make sure they have the best fit for their school. They’ve had great success in the Valley and we’ve been great beneficiaries of that.”
Decisions of this magnitude are about more than athletics at any school. WSU president John Bardo sees athletics as part of a plan that could increase enrollment and associate his school with similar schools in large, metropolitan areas.
“You always have to evaluate what’s going on on your campus, what’s good for your campus,” Illinois State’s Larry Lyons said. “Do we want them to stay? Sure. But, it’s up to them.”
Bell’s comment does serve to illuminate the competing agendas in the MVC.
The conference consists of six public schools, five of which play in the Football Championship Subdivision in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and four private schools. WSU is the lone public school without football and its ability to use its resources on basketball and other sports creates a financial edge.
In December, Bardo stated a preference for Football Bowl Subdivision (which includes the Big 12, SEC, Mountain West, etc.) football. While he since has said he is open to FCS football, some MVC football schools interpret those statements as a slight to their brand of football and underestimating the challenges of FCS football.
“Every program has the right and responsibility to go through this process,” Elgin said. “I can recall four or five of our schools having done this, privately and quietly. They (WSU) has been transparent, they’ve been open, very classy in the way they’ve dealt with this in the media.”
Boatright said he didn’t regret WSU’s public pursuit of information.
“We’ve asked our fan base to stretch and do the best they can to support us at the highest level,” Boatright said. “They deserve for us to do that same thing. To do it publicly was to engage our fan base and let them know we were looking at any option that was out there.”