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Conference realignment and soccer — all in one Wichita State blog post

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New conference for Wichita State. Soccer.

I’ve covered Wichita State since 2005 and those two rumors make the rounds about every six months. Today, I tease you with bits on both with the caveat there is nothing new on either front.

So relax. This is strategic planning stuff that may never get off a wish list.

▪  I attended my seventh Missouri Valley Conference basketball media day last week. The other six were characterized by lots of scheduling questions and varying degrees of optimism. (I missed two because of basketball-related injuries and the MVC, because of cranky coaches, canceled one and missed an opportunity to promote Doug McDermott before his junior season).

This one seemed different, and not just because I didn’t hear one question about how tough it is for mid-majors to schedule.

There is a feeling of trepidation, in varying amounts depending on the source, about what’s next for the MVC and its schools as football-driven autonomy issues become more clear. We won’t know exactly what that means until January, but MVC schools seem resigned that their vows to “keep pace” in men’s and women’s basketball (and perhaps other sports) mean they will need to come up with true cost-of-attendance stipends that are estimated around $4,000-$5,000 per athlete.

The basketball schools know who is in charge of the NCAA and the wishes of the top five football conferences will become more clear in January. Their threat, real or implied, to form their own division with their own basketball tournament, is the hammer.

“With autonomy, it’s obvious the big five (conferences) are going to have a much bigger voice,” Southern Illinois athletic director Mario Moccia said. “He who has the gold makes the rules. There was a palpable fear that the basketball tournament, as we know it, could go away and the non-power five conferences would be left holding the bag. We’ve had to maybe accept some things that maybe we don’t like.”

In five years, we may look back on autonomy as an issue that changed little and conferences will continue to reside in roughly the same spot as always. Or it could change everything, and that is the unknown. There is a feeling that autonomy will continue to separate schools by resources.

This is the change Wichita State is working furiously to be on the right side of.

Conferences don’t kick schools out. It just doesn’t happen. Conferences expand. New conferences form, although that is difficult and rare. If there is a new grouping of top-level basketball-only schools, WSU wants to be in that group. That might come because autonomy forces Evansville or Indiana State or Duquesne or Air Force or Saint Bonaventure to decide that it can’t afford to compete in its current conference. It might come because the big-budget basketball schools want to join together in a new conference, or add other similar programs to strengthen a current conference.

It might come – and I really like this idea – because somebody decides to separate football conferences from other sports, so schools can group the other sports in associations that make sense instead of attaching the basketball and softball teams to far-flung football conferences.

It might not happen that way, at all. But if interesting things happen, WSU wants to be ready. Athletic director Eric Sexton has said that publicly, dating to when Creighton left the Valley for the Big East and maybe before.

“We want to be about excellence,” is his stock reply, and by that he means that if an opportunity presents itself, his job is to run an athletic department that other schools want to be associated with.

Over the past five years, WSU has become to look less like an MVC school and more like … well, it looks more like a private school and that’s part of the problem. Should this trend of growing resources and success continue, WSU might find itself postioned to make a move in conferences or in case the NCAA further separates Division I schools. It is so obvious, Bradley coach Geno Ford brought it up without prompting.

“There is pressure on basketball schools that maybe aren’t performing at that level, because you’re going to need to make sure you stay relevant,” Ford said. “For some of us, that means get relevant. Wichita is relevant nationally. They would have options. If anything were to go on at a more drastic level, than what will probably happen, I don’t think Mr. Sexton is up at night in a panic.”

▪  WSU has no plans to add sports (soccer being the one popularly asked for, other than football). But Sexton said WSU is always considering ways to improve the athletic department and university.

Usually when I ask the question about adding sports, the topic is quickly dismissed. That tone changed slightly when I asked most recently, in the context of WSU’s athletic department continuing to grow and stay ahead of the competition. Sexton replied that WSU is not adding sports, but it does consider the possibility.

“It’s about staying on the cutting edge of, ‘Where do we need to be?’” he said. “Would adding sports strategically help us? You don’t know until you look. ”

WSU president John Bardo wants to remake the campus, add students and change the perception of WSU. He is already doing some of that work. Should his administration decide that, for example, a women’s soccer team adds something to campus life, WSU might take a hard look at the sport, or any sport that might help the university.

To repeat, Sexton says WSU is not adding sports. However, for the first time since I’ve been covering WSU, the possibility, far-fetched or not, isn’t scoffed at by the AD. By writing this, I realize Sexton’s inbox will fill up with passionate requests from fans of football, soccer, lacrosse and wrestling pushing the virtues of their sport.

Next time I ask, I will be probably be quickly dismissed.

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