Standing pat may not be viable in volatile Summit

Cartoon: From The Atlantic, Steven Breen (Altered)

It seemed innocent enough – IUPUI announced their departure to the Horizon League. While the notice period was alarmingly short, the Summit League was adding a new team, North Dakota, in 2018.

Not a big deal.

However, weeks before the IUPUI announcement, the University of Nebraska – Omaha hosted the Missouri Valley Conference membership committee on a campus tour. And the word was out that the Horizon League had plans to add as many as four new teams to their conference. Their target? The Summit League.

Last week, according to reports,  the Summit League’s Fort Wayne’s athletic director said his school is “compelled to look at other options.” Fort Wayne is within driving distance of nearly the entire Horizon League.

Fort Wayne’s departure would take the eight team Summit League to five baseball teams – one below the NCAA auto-bid requirement. However, the NCAA allows leagues a grace period if they lose members – and incoming North Dakota does not have baseball to fill the void. Summit schools with a rich baseball history or a commitment to baseball will logically be looking for a safer place for their programs – North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Oral Roberts and others. And schools on shaky financial footing like Western Illinois are no bet to continue offering the sport due to its relatively high cost.

As the conference game of ‘chicken’ plays out, schools are going to seek stability and the Summit League could evaporate before our eyes. The real risk would be having either the Missouri Valley or the Horizon League pluck one of the the Summit’s ‘core four’ – North Dakota, North Dakota State, University of South Dakota or South Dakota State University. If any of these four teams depart, the conference is in real trouble.

Many assume that UMKC will return to the Summit to take the place of the departed IUPUI but they will come without baseball and a generally poor athletic track record. There are slim picking outside the Kangaroos for the Summit Conference. And, if the conference is seen as unstable, which it is now, even marginal programs outside the league geography may hesitate to join.

“I would say anytime there’s potential change in your league, there’s always a little bit of a concern,” said NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen told Inforum. “There’s been so much movement in college athletics and we’ve seen the evolution of conferences changing for the better part of seven to 10 years now. I still think we have a strong conference, but there’s always a concern when there are departures and somebody leaves for another league.”

DU cannot sit by and wait for the conference fate to determine their future. Denver needs to hold onto the Summit League as Plan A. However, Denver needs to work on a plan B, C, and D. While the West Coast Conference, an affiliate membership in the Mountain West Conference or Big EAST Membership might be a dream scenarios,  Denver could be left out in the cold once again in a game of conference dominoes. And the impact will likely be felt immediately with recruiting student athletes to a flagging conference buffeted by uncertainty.

6 thoughts on “Standing pat may not be viable in volatile Summit”

  1. Summer news about DU sports is usually not the best. Injuries and defections. Now we worry about evaporation of the Summit. I won’t be redundant and write why we can be a big contributor to the Big East from day one. However, The BE likes to brag, and we could give them teams which would be the best in league right now. OK, so the big sport, basketball, we are today a weak link. Trust me on this people; a weak link in a league where every other games is a war is something coaches love. It’s both a mental and physical break. Now Take this trip down Memory Lane: Think Rutgers football and basketball, Seton Hall hoops in the Rafterty and early PJ years, Rice football, Northwestern football, Oregon State, Washington State, and Cal football, Vandy football, Columbia football. Just look at the football teams. They were everyone’s homecoming game. Go Big East Now!!

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    1. The Big East is very happy where it is as a hoops-focused conference, and the chances of them being interested in DU as a non-catholic, middling hoops program two time zones away would be very limited.

      What DU could bring to the Big East is a like-minded, private academic fit with well-funded, good-facility sports program and newer, young market with tourism appeal, easy air connections.

      If the Big East were for some reason, to offer an all-sports spot to DU, DU would take it in a New York second, even if the entry fee was $5 million and it required an annual mens hoops budget investment of $7 million or so. The academic fit would be amazing for DU and Big East brand would enable DU to soon find the money in terms of sponsorship, TV and donor appeal. DU’s season ticket base would triple overnight with the prospect of playing name brand hoops schools like Villanova, Georgetown, Creighton, Butler and Providence at Magness. Our basketball program would suddenly attract 3 and perhaps some 4-star recruits – a different level of recruit than the 2 star guys DU gets today.

      This would be a huge, crowning achievement for DU, but the chances of it happening are less than 5%. It’s far more likely that DU will be riding the waves of Summit Upheaval and hoping for a soft landing.

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  2. Actually, 4 BE schools are only 1 time zone away, and Creighton is in a neighboring state.
    The world is changing Puck. Leagues are looking for larger media coverage and expanding their blueprints.. Go back 15 years and there is no way you would think: CU in the Pac-10, WVU in the Big XII, a all sports league with half the teams located in Texas, Texas A&M in the SEC, Rutgers in the Big 10. Cuse, BC, and Pitt in the ACC. Maybe we get lucky and the chips fall our way.

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  3. I have thought for awhile that Denver might end up in the Missouri Valley Conference at some point, at least for basketball. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the other DU sports to know how that would shake out though? I do know a number of Summit League basketball teams play in the MVC football conference…

    In basketball I see the MVC as a league that is in trouble, right now they are stealing from the Horizon and the Horizon is stealing from the Summit, but I think at some point the MVC is going to try to grab Denver if they can. They may go after other Summit schools at the same time as well, I guess in essence what we could see is the MVC, Horizon, and Summit teams ending up in two leagues, with stragglers kicked out as necessary….

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  4. The MVC flirted with Denver when DU was considering fleeing the imploding WAC, but as I remember, they wanted us to start baseball and DU balked…

    The MVC is a slightly better basketball pedigree, but those MVC schools aren’t going to draw crowds at Magness any more than the Summit teams do. Anyway, the MVC has many much closer school addition options than a school in Colorado…

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    1. In a pinch, DU would go to the Horizon. But, like Puck says, far from ideal. DU needs to elevate their bball profile to get to their ideal league scenario – the WCC.

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