Wichita State Shockers

Home in the MVC since 1945, Wichita State wants to consider a new neighborhood

Wichita State president John Bardo cuts down the net after the Shockers locked up the Missouri Valley Conference title on Feb. 21, 2014, at Koch Arena.
Wichita State president John Bardo cuts down the net after the Shockers locked up the Missouri Valley Conference title on Feb. 21, 2014, at Koch Arena. The Wichita Eagle

With a roll call of 23 former members, ranging from North Texas State to Grinnell, the Missouri Valley Conference has long been in transition and long existed as a temporary home for schools on their way up or down.

Wichita State wants to know if it is time for the Shockers to move on.

President John Bardo and deputy athletic director Darron Boatright are looking at conference affiliation as part of a comprehensive examination of WSU’s future in athletics, one that will include considering new sports, new facilities and a new set of conference partners.

“If we stay in the Missouri Valley, we’re going to try to be a force for good and pushing forward,” Bardo said. “But we’re going to position ourselves, if there’s another shift in conferences around the nation, we’re going to position ourselves to be as good as we can be and see whether the Missouri Valley is the right place for us.”

Leaving the MVC wouldn’t be done lightly or without strong feelings.

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 70 years, the Valley provided a competitive and geographically suitable place for Shocker athletics.

With WSU’s athletic success peaking, Bardo is determined to see if his school is a better fit in a conference populated with similar institutions in similar cities with similar academic missions. If a higher-profile home for WSU’s athletic teams exists, Bardo is interested in knowing more.

The Missouri Valley Conference is a collection of schools with little in common with Wichita State, outside of the relationships and traditions formed over many years of conference membership. It is home to four private schools. It is home to five other public schools, all located in smaller cities and with different academic and research focuses.

When Bardo looks at his university, he sees more in common with former MVC members such as Louisville, Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati than he does with Indiana State and Northern Iowa. When he looks at his city, he sees a situation much different from Terre Haute, Ind., or Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“We’re an emerging major research university,” Bardo said. “If you look at what’s happening around the United States, major research universities are the core drivers of those cities that are being successful. We really feel that change in society has positioned us differently.”

In May, WSU won the MVC’s All-Sports trophy for the ninth time in 12 years. Its recent dominance in men’s and women’s basketball, as well as other sports, causes fans to look for bigger challenges, bigger names and increased TV exposure.

MVC commissioner Doug Elgin is scheduled to come to Wichita for the Friday women’s basketball game against No. 16 Tennessee and Saturday’s men’s game against No. 25 Utah. Among their discussions will be ways that WSU can help improve the MVC.

“There’s no secrets from Doug,” Bardo said. “I’m not in a position of saying we’re leaving the Missouri Valley. That’s not true. We may well say, ‘Hey, the Missouri Valley is our home and we’re going to really try to be part of moving it up in quality.’ On the other hand, who knows?”

Football and conference memberships are often linked. Bardo said he is hearing mixed feedback on the necessity of adding football.

“Some people are saying without it, you can’t do anything without it,” he said. “And some people are saying without, you’re a better choice.”

Should another major shakeup affect membership in the top conferences, known as the Power Five, he wants WSU prepared.

“I want us to be positioned, whatever is right for this university, that we can do,” he said. “I don’t think we can be in the Power Five immediately, or anything like that. I want to be really sure that we know where we are.”

The American Athletic and Mountain West conferences stand out as reasonable options, long targeted by fans as dream destinations. The AAC has 11 all-sports members, including Memphis, Cincinnati, Tulsa and SMU, and Navy plays football. The Mountain West, with schools such as New Mexico, Wyoming, UNLV and San Diego State, also has 11 all-sports schools, with Hawaii playing football.

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop

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