The Titans Clash, Then They Leave
It’s Saturday, February 16, 1963. John F. Kennedy is President of the United States, and in London the Beatles are recording their debut album which they hope to release next month. In Brooklyn, New York, Deloris Jordan and her husband James are heading to the hospital—their son Michael Jordan (maybe you’ve heard of him?) will be born the next day. And in Wichita, Kansas, two heavyweight college basketball programs are embroiled in an epic game with national title implications. The University of Cincinnati, ranked #1 in the country and featuring future NBA superstar Oscar Robertson, is leading top ten ranked University of Wichita by six points with three minutes left in the game. Wichita forward Dave Stallworth, himself a future NBA star who will win a championship with the Knicks in 1970, takes control of the game and scores seven points in the final three minutes, including the game winning free throw. With the thrilling 65-64 win, Wichita snaps Cincinnati’s 37 game winning streak. In the next month, Cincinnati will go on to defend its two straight national titles in the national championship game. Wichita will finish this season and the next two ranked in the top five, and in 1965 will play in its first Final Four, falling to eventual champion UCLA. This February game between Cincinnati and Wichita epitomized college basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference.
In a 1963 Sports Illustrated article (https://www.si.com/vault/1963/01/21/604766/life-in-the-valley-of-death), after losing to Cincinnati, Ohio State’s coach called the Valley the best conference in the country. Adolph Rupp, Kentucky’s hall of fame coach, agreed when his Wildcats were manhandled by Valley member Saint Louis University in one of the most lopsided losses the legendary coach’s program ever endured. But the Valley’s success might have been its undoing. It was an era before at large bids to the NCAA tournament—only conference champions played for the national title. Coaches lamented that any team in the Valley could win the national championship, but only one had the chance to do it. The conference was nicknamed “The Valley of Death.” So slowly but surely, schools left to go independent or for opportunities to be big fish in what were then smaller ponds. Cincinnati in 1969, Memphis State in 1973, SLU and Louisville in 1974. Former Missouri Valley Conference members are like a who’s who in college athletics: Kansas, Louisville, Iowa State, Missouri, Butler (yes, THAT Butler), K-State, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State…
Wounded, the Valley still continued to be potent. Indiana State and its superstar Larry Bird played Michigan State for the national title in 1979. Wichita State’s top 10 ranked teams of the 1980s featured a plethora of McDonald’s All Americans, future NBA all-stars, and first round draft picks like Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, and Xavier McDaniel. Bradley’s teams in the late 1980s had phenom Hersey Hawkins.
Then Tulsa left in 1996. With each defection, it seemed the schools replacing the departed program didn’t have nearly the same cache. Illinois State was added in the early 1980s; Evansville, Northern Iowa, and Missouri State in the 1990s. To the Valley’s credit, it did seem to experience a resurgence in the mid-2000s. Southern Illinois went to six straight NCAA tournaments and two Sweet Sixteens. In 2006-2007, the conference finished with a top 6 RPI and ahead of a BCS league for the second straight year—after sending 4 teams to the NCAA tournament the prior year. But the league was trending down in an era of a college athletics arms race. The creation of the BCS and the emergence of football as a multi-billion dollar revenue generator for the “Power 5” conferences has put leagues like the MVC on life support. Creighton’s departure in 2013 left Wichita State as the MVC’s only stable national brand.
So to Wichita State fans, today’s news of the school’s move to the American Athletic Conference is a bittersweet pill to swallow. The Valley has been Wichita’s athletics home since 1945, and the conference’s golden age of the 1950s and 1960s is still a vivid memory to many of the school’s boosters and fans. It was a simpler time when college conferences made geographic sense and close regional rivalries abounded with schools fans loved to hate. It was a time before “one-and-done” prima donnas, when kids went to college to, you know, get an education. A future playing professional sports was a side benefit if they happened to be talented and lucky. But change is inevitable, and it came quickly.
The Race Begins
There was a sea-change in college athletics in the 1980s. It became a business. The rise of cable sports networks (namely ESPN) meant big money for college sports. Unfortunately for Wichita State, this came at nearly the same time as budget cuts which forced the cancellation of the football program in 1986, coupled with a few bad coaching hires that devastated its men’s basketball program for a generation. Wichita State was relegated to an afterthought in college athletics and it looked like it was going to be left out of the conference realignment craze of the past 15 years.
Enter coach Gregg Marshall. Hired away from Winthrop University in 2007, he replaced Mark Turgeon who had resurrected the Shockers’ basketball program and took it to the Sweet 16 in 2006. Turgeon himself had been lured to the University by a crucial decision it made in 2000 to gut and renovate aging Henry Levitt Arena, its venerable 50 year old on campus facility, into the 10,500 seat Charles Koch Arena. The state of the art digs not only put Wichita State back at the top of the conference in facilities, but also outclassed many major conference arenas. Marshall used the momentum Turgeon created to catapult Wichita State back to its roots as a college basketball powerhouse, with an NIT championship and six straight NCAA tournament appearances including a Final Four, a Sweet Sixteen, and an undefeated regular season.
In many ways, Marshall awakened a sleeping giant. Seemingly stuck in the college sports’ past, Wichita State suddenly found itself in the thick of today’s athletics arms race. Unfortunately, its conference did not.
Change or Die
Money from football TV contracts is arguably ruining not just the amateurism of college sports, but the purity of it. Some of today’s athletes seem to be more concerned about shoe contracts or their draft status than the school they represent. If an athlete only spends a year or two in college before turning pro, not only does the opportunity to build loyalty hardly develop, but the college itself becomes merely a means to an end, nothing more than a stepping stone to bigger and better things. College football—and to some degree basketball as well—is threatening to become an unwatchable spectacle of entitled future millionaires biding their time playing for a team that means little to them while they dream of seven figure contracts. Whether or not you like the landscape of college sports today, though, it’s true that with anything in life you must adapt in order to succeed or thrive. “What got you here won’t get you there,” the saying goes.
The Missouri Valley’s demise as America’s premier college basketball conference was slow, but it was not unavoidable. With a multitude of decisions in an apparent attempt to preserve the status quo, the conference refused to reinvent itself, refused to expand, refused to take risks, refused to adapt to the changing landscape. Similarly, many schools within the conference did the same, failing to invest in their futures—except two: Creighton and Wichita State. Creighton left the Valley in 2013 for the proverbial offer it couldn’t refuse: an invite from the reinvented Big East, where it would associate with other private Catholic schools without football programs. Its replacement in the Valley? The University of Loyola-Chicago, a private school where athletics takes a back seat to virtually everything and anything else on campus. Without Creighton, Wichita State was left in a conference whose schools seemed to be satisfied with mediocrity. WSU wanted to be great. Wichita State had the largest athletics budget in the Valley despite not having a football program. It spends more on its basketball program (over $7 million) than many Power 5 schools and almost more than the rest of the Valley schools combined. Marshall’s salary makes him the 9th highest paid coach in college basketball. Success doesn’t always depend on money, but it helps, and in a conference without a major football TV contract, resources are a sign of support. Success does depend on support, and the university had that in multiples beyond its conference peers. Its average attendance at basketball games is twice that of the school in second place. The fiscal and physical support has led WSU’s basketball team to four consecutive conference titles and five of the last six. This past season, the team won 17 of its 18 conference games and the margin of victory was the highest in the league’s 110 year history.
Yet despite winning 30 games this past season and being ranked in the top 10 by statistical models, the program was given a 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. This was due to the weakness of WSU’s conference and the lack of opportunities it gave the Shockers to play quality games. After being favored against a stout 7 seed in their first tournament game and winning by six, the Shockers were forced to play the field’s best 2 seed, Kentucky, in a game both programs deserved to have avoided until later rounds of the tournament. The Wildcats barely survived by three points in a back-and-forth game featuring around a dozen lead changes. Perhaps showing the Shockers’ dramatic underseeding, Kentucky handled 3-seed UCLA by eleven in the next game. This tournament marked the latest in what had become a trend in the past few years of seeding Wichita State poorly not because of anything it did, but because of what its conference wasn’t doing.
The New Home Looks A Lot Like the Old One
The irony in comparing the Missouri Valley to the American is apparent in just a quick examination of the member schools. Four of the eleven all-sports members are former schools in the Missouri Valley—Tulsa, Houston, Memphis, and Cincinnati. Wichita will make it five of twelve. In many ways, Wichita State is coming home to the AAC. Its existence as a research focused university in a major metropolitan area made it an outlier in today’s Valley, where most schools are located in rural Midwestern areas. The AAC’s make up of urban campuses in major cities is much more reminiscent of the old Valley of Death. Most attractive to Wichita State is a conference where member schools on the most part are serious about their basketball programs. The University of Connecticut, a four time national champion with its most recent title in 2014, is the flagship of the conference. Cincinnati, Memphis, and Houston have historically phenomenal programs that far outclass Wichita’s current Valley foes. Temple and Tulsa have rich histories and solid programs. SMU is an up-and-coming program with impressive recent success. Even conference doormats Tulane, East Carolina, Central Florida, and South Florida have the potential few current Valley programs can offer. Central Florida’s recently hired coach is former NBA player and former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins. No American member seems to be satisfied with mediocrity. Six conference members make regular appearances in the Associated Press’ men’s basketball poll. Seven or eight members have legitimate chances to be in the NCAA tournament nearly every year. The American is the new Valley of Death.
Wichita State fans have just as much cause to celebrate this news as they have to lament the reason for it. WSU has called The Valley home for 72 years. Nostalgia and familiarity are difficult to give up, as are close regional rivals. And the elephant in the room, of course, is the potential devastating impact WSU’s departure could have on an already weakened and vulnerable Valley. The second oldest conference in college sports won’t likely go away anytime soon, but this loss may be the final blow from which it may never truly recover. And none of this had to happen if years ago, better decisions had been made by conference administration.
As much as college sports should not be about money, it should be about striving for excellence and pushing oneself to be better. These are things a student athlete’s coach demands of them constantly, but they are things Valley administration did not seem to understand. The Valley’s lack of foresight, its refusal to strive for excellence, has led the once proud conference to become a shell of its former self. There is a lesson to be learned here, and it goes well beyond college sports. You can be on the right track and still get hit by a train if you’re standing still. Change is inevitable and sometimes it’s difficult, but with the right mindset it can be an opportunity.