When Wichita State’s volleyball team plays in Philadelphia on Sept. 22 against Temple, it will usher in a new era. The AAC era.
And you can bet WSU athletic director Darron Boatright, who has steered the process of change from the Missouri Valley to the American Athletic Conference, will do a little gloating.
“I feel great about this move,” Boatright said in his office this week. “I think it has an opportunity to re-energize not only our fan base and our university, but our city. I can tell just in the past days how excited people are.”
Cutting ties with the Valley after 72 years wasn’t done, though, without some emotional pain. As Boatright contemplated the long and rich life of former Shocker football standout Linwood Sexton during Sexton’s memorial service last week, he marveled at Sexton’s timeline.
“It dawned on me that Mr. Sexton entered Wichita State in the fall of 1944 and we entered the Valley in the fall of 1945,” Boatright said. “His experience spanned those 72 years we were in the Valley almost to the day. That’s pretty special and I would dare say there is no one who saw more Wichita State/Missouri Valley contests than Mr. Sexton saw. He was at every volleyball game, women’s basketball game and men’s basketball game. I hope this move makes him proud.”
Undoubtedly, it would.
Because it was time.
When Boatright and Wichita State president John Bardo first acknowledged that the university was in the process of weighing its athletic department options as they related to football and conference affiliation nearly 16 months ago, it was obvious that the Shockers’ time in the Valley could be coming to an end.
Bardo insisted that the study could result in Wichita State doing nothing. But that never seemed plausible. It would be dangerous to announce such an initiative and then stand pat.
The idea of football, which has been absent at WSU since the end of the 1986 season, never got into the air. Donors, boosters and general Shocker fans, Boatright said, showed little interest. Being a Kentucky native and a guy who once was on the basketball staff at Alabama as director of operations, there’s football in Boatright’s blood.
“It was pretty obvious that now, at least, there’s not much support for football,” he said. “And that’s fine. I would rather not have it and agree with the sentiment of our fan base than be in disagreement and have them not support it. It would be fantastic for the institution to have football, but if the market doesn’t bear it then it’s not something you want. I’ve also been at places that had football and didn’t know what to do with it.”
There are only a select number of schools, Boatright said, that can get their football programs on prime-time television and reap the financial gains that come with that. Others, he acknowledged, struggle to find a profit.
Men’s basketball is the engine that drives Wichita State and neither Boatright nor Bardo lost sight of that.
And the Shockers’ success under Gregg Marshall has resulted in a domination of the Valley to go with six consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances that included a Final Four, the school’s second, in 2013.
“We all saw some apathy set in this past season,” Boatright said.
Then he corrected himself, using the word “boredom” instead.
Wichita State’s consistent thrashing of Valley opponents at Koch Arena resulted in fewer students showing up for games and far less noise inside Koch Arena than has been the custom. People went to games and left satisfied with Shocker victories. But there wasn’t much to those games.
“Just to have a new cast of characters rolling into town on a regular basis with a new association will be exciting,” Boatright said.
But will Wichita State’s membership in the American, a conference that includes schools from Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma help the university with enrollment, one of the chief initiatives of its evaluation?
Bardo’s infatuation with football was, to a large degree, rooted in his belief that re-instituting the sport would create buzz on the campus and lead to more students. Can a switch in conferences do the same?
“I think it has an opportunity to,” said Boatright, who arrived at WSU in 2010 as an assistant AD after four years at Murray State. “Now we’re not just going to be marketing in the cities and in the locations that we choose, we’re going to be in those cities competing. Dr. Bardo and the Board of Regents have expressed a commitment to the I-35 corridor and we’re going to be getting on that corridor for a lot of our events.”
Wichita State is attempting to attract more students from Oklahoma and Texas, in particular. With Tulsa, SMU and Houston in or near that corridor, Boatright and Bardo are hoping that added exposure leads to more WSU students.
“We’re not just there putting up a billboard asking kids to come to Wichita State now,” Boatright said. “We’re taking out students into their communities and showcasing what we offer.”
Boatright said he’s not personally worried about more potential conference shifting in years to come or by the general uneasiness of several AAC schools who regard themselves as power-five ready, such as UConn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston.
“We accept the fact that this is the environment we live in now,” he said. “We would never hold it against any institution for trying to stretch and do what’s right for them. It’s exactly what we just did.
“I have tremendous confidence in this conference and its marketability for others to join. I believe there will be more realignment. Maybe not in the immediate future but it’s coming and I believe the commissioner (Michael Aresco) and others in the AAC will be prepared when that happens.”
Boatright would be happy if the next time Wichita State changes conferences is in 2089, 72 years from now. He looks at the American Athletic Conference as the Shockers’ long-term home in an era of instability in college athletics.
But who knows? Priorities change and money becomes more and more of a priority.
For now, though, the 41-year-old Boatright is happy to kick back in Wichita State’s new conference, excited to see what’s ahead. He’s had a year in which he had to suspend basketball coach Gregg Marshall for a tirade against an official in a game during a summer tour of Canada, make a change in coaching with women’s basketball and oversee the biggest move the Shockers have ever made.
“To say there’s not some personal gratification would be misleading,” Boatright said. “There is. But a lot of us worked on this. I’m a fan of John Wooden and I remember him saying, ‘Prepare yourself for when your opportunity comes. If you’re not prepared, it may not soon come again.’ ”