Soon after Wichita State president John Bardo decided his athletic department needed a new conference, he spent a weekend researching.
When he looked at enrollment, budgets and cities, he wanted to see how Wichita State might look one day. He wanted to see schools with ambition and resources and the status to play a major role in their city’s growth.
Conferences such as the Mountain West, the Atlantic 10 and the Big East made some sense for his basketball-focused school.
The American Athletic Conference made the most sense for athletic and academic reasons.
“These are schools that are either like us now or like we want to be,” he said.
On Friday, Wichita State accepted an invitation to join the American and change its position in college athletics. It leaves the Missouri Valley Conference, its home since 1945, after deciding the MVC no longer fit its academic or athletic vision.
“This conference is saying we want to be on the map as a player,” Bardo said. “This is not, ‘Oh gosh, can we drive a bus over here? It’s, ‘We want to be a player. We want to get to where people are afraid to play us.’ ”
The move will take place for the 2017-18 school year and include all Shocker sports. WSU joins the new conference on July 1. It will not add football and the discussion of that sport is pushed far into the background, Bardo said.
All 12 American presidents voted for Wichita State, a decision driven largely by men’s basketball and the belief Wichita State and coach Gregg Marshall will boost prestige and NCAA Tournament berths. The Shockers, 31-5 last season, return every rotation player and should begin 2017-18 ranked in the top 10 nationally.
“It’s just a matter of time before this becomes one of the best basketball conferences in the country,” American commissioner Mike Aresco told reporters on a midday conference call.
WSU joins a conference with 2014 NCAA champion Connecticut, Cincinnati, SMU, Memphis, Temple and Tulsa. Marshall, Memphis’ Tubby Smith, Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie and Houston’s Kelvin Sampson have a Final Four on their resumes.
Those names are expected to thrill a Shocker fan base weary of routine MVC victories.
“I think it’ll be very exciting for the fans. I think it’ll be really gut-wrenching for the coaches,” Marshall said. “… The entertainment value should be through the roof.”
Prominent conference realignment is usually guided by football and its money-making potential. Wichita State’s powerful basketball and its geographic fit broke that trend. According to the AAC, schools will play an 18-game men’s basketball schedule with seven home-and-home series and four one-time opponents. The conference will set the schedule to match teams with common strengths and produce attractive TV games.
Wichita State fans can count on home-and-home series with other top American teams.
“The addition of Wichita State bolsters an incredibly strong American Athletic Conference,” Temple men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy said in a news release. “ I applaud the conference presidents for their forward thinking for the league.”
Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright said financial details are in the hands of attorneys and will not be final until next week at the earliest.
WSU will pay an entrance fee to the AAC. It will forfeit its shares of NCAA Tournament revenue earned as a Missouri Valley Conference school as a penalty for withdrawal without 24-month notice, as required by the MVC constitution.
There is no exit fee from the MVC.
According to WSU senior associate athletic director Rege Klitzke, Wichita State’s preliminary figures indicate added travel costs and lost MVC revenue create a shortfall of around $2 million.
Boatright wants fans to understand the financial implications and prepared them for increased giving requests and ticket prices. Travel is a factor and other areas in the department, such as staffing, may need to change.
The University of Wichita joined the MVC in 1945 and its identity as a basketball school grew with its membership in the “Valley of Death” during the conference’s glory days of the 1950s and 1960s. For most of the past 72 years, the Valley provided a competitive and geographically suitable place for Shocker athletics.
Presidents from the remaining nine Missouri Valley schools are scheduled to meet with conference administrators Sunday in St. Louis. WSU officials emphasized their respect for MVC officials and schools and their appreciation for their tenure in the conference.
“It is mixed emotions today because we spent so much time and so many years happily in the Missouri Valley Conference,” Boatright said.
Moving to the AAC is a reunion of sorts for Shocker fans. Houston, Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati were all Missouri Valley members before leaving 40-or-more years ago.
When Bardo, hired in 2012, began to take a close look at athletics, he found the MVC’s mix of public and private schools unsatisfactory. WSU shares little in common with the four private schools. The five other public schools are largely different in academic mission and location. The MVC, he said, would not be an ideal fit for WSU even if its basketball remained strong.
As its basketball strength declined and as MVC schools faced growing budget concerns, WSU’s desire to relocate picked up urgency. A public declaration of the intention to look at conference options in 2015 proved to Bardo that his boosters wanted something different.
“It became increasingly clear that we were simply moving in different directions than the Missouri Valley,” Bardo said.
The AAC’s geography is more expansive than the MVC. AAC members are Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, SMU, Temple, South Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Central Florida and football-only Navy.
Men’s basketball in the AAC
- Location: Orlando, Fla.
- Enrollment: 64,318
- Coach: Johnny Dawkins
- 2016-17 record: 24-12 (NIT)
- RPI rank: 58
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 4 (2005 most recent)
- Location: Cincinnati
- Enrollment: 44,338
- Coach: Mick Cronin
- 2016-17 record: 30-6 (NCAA)
- RPI rank: 12
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 31 (2017)
- Location: Storrs, Conn.
- Enrollment: 32,027
- Coach: Kevin Ollie
- 2016-17 record: 16-17
- RPI rank: 119
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 33 (2016)
- Location: Greenville, N.C.
- Enrollment: 28,962
- Coach: Jeff Lebo
- 2016-17 record: 15-18
- RPI rank: 214
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 2 (1993)
- Location: Houston
- Enrollment: 42,000
- Coach: Kelvin Sampson
- 2016-17 record: 21-11 (NIT)
- RPI rank: 60
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 19 (2010)
- Location: Memphis, Tenn.
- Enrollment: 20,585
- Coach: Tubby Smith
- 2016-17 record: 19-13
- RPI rank: 116
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 26 (2014)
- Location: Dallas
- Enrollment: 11,643
- Coach: Tim Jankovich
- 2016-17 record: 30-5 (NCAA)
- RPI rank: 15
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 12 (2017)
- Location: Tampa, Fla.
- Enrollment: 42,000
- Coach: Brian Gregory
- 2016-17 record: 7-23
- RPI rank: 316
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (2012)
- Location: Philadelphia
- Enrollment: 39,000
- Coach: Fran Dunphy
- 2016-17 record: 16-16
- RPI rank: 130
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 32 (2016)
- Location: New Orleans
- Enrollment: 13,000
- Coach: Mike Dunleavy
- 2016-17 record: 6-25
- RPI rank: 295
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 3 (1995)
- Location: Tulsa
- Enrollment: 4,682
- Coach: Frank Haith
- 2016-17 record: 15-17
- RPI rank: 133
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 15 (2016)
- Location: Wichita
- Enrollment: 14,474
- Coach: Gregg Marshall
- 2016-17 record: 31-5
- RPI rank: 32
- NCAA Tournament appearances: 14 (2017)