Wichita State Shockers

Good times at WSU in 2026: Hoops thrive with football’s resurgence

The Shocker student section stayed strong during basketball in the mid-2020s, even after student-fee increases that helped subsidize the football program.
The Shocker student section stayed strong during basketball in the mid-2020s, even after student-fee increases that helped subsidize the football program. The Wichita Eagle

Editor’s note: As part of our college basketball preview, Eagle beat writers are projecting what the state’s basketball programs will be like in 10 years. For Wichita State, we look at the upside and downside of a possible return of football. Here’s the upside.

The weekend starts as all football weekends do at Wichita State in 2026 — the marching band drumline parades through campus on Friday night.

It starts at Shocker Hall, rallying fans with its percussion, precision marching and flags, and advances on the dorms, bars and restaurants on the east side, around the Innovation Campus. Fans stream out to follow the noise and color to Braeburn Square for the pep rally and speech from coach Josh Heupel.

November 2026 and it’s homecoming at Wichita State. Alums and fans making a rare visit don’t recognize the place.

After years of investment, setbacks and triumph, it’s the weekend university president John Bardo dreamed of in 2015 when he told the world football might take WSU (and the community) into new realms. On Saturday afternoon, the football team plays Tulsa on ESPNU with both fighting for one of eight bowl games associated with the American Athletic Conference. All 40,000 seats at Cessna Stadium, home of Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers Field, are sold. Late morning, the women’s soccer team plays No. 20 SMU and a volleyball match against Cincinnati ends the activities.

Tucked in just before football is an hour scrimmage by the men’s basketball team at Koch Arena, newly expanded to 11,500 seats with the addition of a ring of suites around the top of the arena. In a week, new basketball coach Fred VanVleet debuts. In two months, the Shockers open American play against Memphis.

“If you think about where football is today, it’s an event,” Bardo said in August 2016. “It’s a mobile party that on many campuses start on Friday. What you’re doing for the city of Wichita is creating six events a year that are pretty major events. It’s not just about football.”

That was always the hope. And the concern.

This time, it worked.

How did this happen?

Wichita State prepared. It, in a phrase passed from athletic director to athletic director, strove for excellence. The right people noticed after 20 years. Student fees rose and students kept coming.

When the big changes hit the Big 12 in 2025, when its grant of rights media contract expired, it set off the chaos needed to push WSU into the changes.

Out of the disorder — started by Connecticut joining West Virginia in the ACC — the American Athletic Conference added Wichita State, Charlotte, UAB and Western Kentucky for a 14-school total in a grab for any city with significant working TV sets and modest name recognition (Navy, a football-only member, went independent). WSU, which added football in 2019, enjoyed support from Tulsa. What also helped was a well-rounded athletic program built over 23 years, enrollment pushing 22,000 and a growing academic research profile.

In 2023, WSU announced its departure from the Missouri Valley Conference to end an association that began in 1945 and included successes such as the 1989 NCAA baseball title and trips to the Final Four in 1965, 2013 and 2021 in coach Gregg Marshall’s farewell season. For fans who watched rivals such as Cincinnati, Tulsa and Creighton move on over the years, celebration ensued.

As Bardo predicted, Shocker basketball didn’t suffer with the addition of football.

“You’ve got to go back to the culture of the state,” Bardo said in 2016. “Kansas has positioned itself as a basketball center, and I don’t see us changing that. We’re not backing down on basketball.”

In 2026, it’s clear all sports, in fact, benefited from football’s overflow of facilities and interest.

For both regular students and the softball recruit from Oklahoma City, curb appeal increased as gleaming football facilities grew. The football complex, which included two indoor practice fields and weight room, located at the former site of Fairmount Towers, gave all sports a shiny new recruiting tool. When the university built a new student recreation center on the Innovation Campus, the athletic department took over the Heskett Center, which gave track and field an indoor home and expanded softball’s Wilkins Stadium into a connected weight room and indoor practice turf field.

“I often say FBS football is like the U.S. Senate,” said Mario Moccia, current New Mexico State and former Southern Illinois athletic director, in 2016. “It’s the most exclusive club. It’s a rallying point for a lot of alums. They may love soccer, volleyball or cross country, but it’s hard to get alums to come back en masse.”

Basketball renewed rivalries with old MVC foes Tulsa, Cincinnati and Memphis, which drove demand for tickets, increased TV time and access to at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. It gave VanVleet, hired in 2026 after a six-season NBA career, two as an NBA assistant and two in an NBA front office, the stage he and the program deserved — trading Loyola’s 4,500-seat gym for sellout crowds in Memphis and Cincinnati.

Old Dominion athletic director Wood Selig worked at similar schools with strong basketball traditions that upgraded football from the Football Championship Subdivision (where MVC schools such as Missouri State and Northern Iowa compete) to Football Bowl Subdivision. Preserving basketball, while elevating and sustaining football, is a matter of planning. If football produces 25 percent of athletes in the department, plan for around 25 percent of staff devoted to that sport.

“It certainly doesn’t detract from basketball,” he said in 2015. “Basketball is, without a doubt, your flagship sport. It’s kind like adding another sibling to the family. It can cause some ruffled feathers, some resentment, some sibling rivalry. There’s going to be the balancing of keeping basketball — hardcore fans, the coaches — feeling they’re not going to see any less support.”

It’s November 2026. Homecoming at Wichita State. Forty years after dropping a struggling football program, the sport is back at Wichita State. Shocker basketball, like at former MVC mates such as Louisville, Cincinnati and Memphis, welcomed its new sibling and both enjoyed the other’s company.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

What the fans say

WSU beat writer Paul Suellentrop asked 2016 Shocker fans for their opinions on a possible return of football to campus.

“If you compare Wichita State to the rest of the Valley, there is clearly evidence that Wichita State is an outlier in this league. Whether that be overall sport success, athletic budgets, community financial support, success in postseason tournaments, etc. Wichita State clearly stands atop the Valley. With the recent success in men’s basketball, I think fans are ready for the next big step and playing in half-empty Valley arenas doesn’t necessarily drive great enthusiasm.”

— Jason Ream

“(Football) would probably mean the elimination of some minor sports, if we had to come up with 75 additional scholarships. I’d hate like the devil for us to lose golf or tennis or what have you. That would be my only fear. The NCAA makes it almost impossible to start from where we are now. It’s tremendously expensive.”

— Bob Geist

“I agree with Dr. John Bardo that if WSU can actually pull off adding football, they need to do it the right way. My best recollection is that it will take $40 million to upgrade Cessna Stadium to be adequate for football. I'm not sure where they can come up with that kind of money unless someone like Charles Koch can step forward.”

— Vic Heckart