Cozy Summit League relationships cast dark shadow over Augustana

Photo: Courtesy of Argus Leader. The new Summit League’s office in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on the Sanford Health Campus is now nearing completion. 

Conference coaches jokingly refer to the Summit League as the ‘Sanford League’. But let’s hope the Dakota-centric league rethinks their reliance on North and South Dakota for new members. With only 880,000 people in South Dakota and 760,000 people in North Dakota, a sixth DI member from one of the two states, Augustana University, may be too many – even for die-hard locals.

Can a small state like South Dakota support a third Division I program? Will Augustana cannibalize other South Dakota member fan bases? Will the addition of yet one more member persuade non-Dakota members to either depart or deter new member schools from other states from joining?

Time will tell. But, what seemed like such a swell idea by Summit League insiders may not be the ‘quick win’ envisioned by many.

According to KELO, South Dakota athletic director David Herbster said, as of now, “everybody would probably say ‘no,'” Herbster said. “The only reason I say that is right now, I might know enough about Augustana, but probably other members in the league right now don’t know anything about Augustana — the athletic department, their profile, even the university. So, as part of that process, whether it is a campus visit or different things like that, when Augustana gets to the point where they feel like they can start to have those conversations, then they reach out.”

But can the conference – beholden to their biggest sponsor and Summit League landlord, Sanford Health – resist the easy way out and target an out-of-state school to move the conference back to 10 members and meet the NCAA automatic qualifier of six member institutions for baseball? Or is it too late to consider other options for a conference already overinfluenced by the Dakotas and Sanford Health?

We’ve written about Summit League allegiances and their ‘special relationship’ with their major sponsor Sanford Health in the past and yet, it seems this topic continues to rear its exceedingly ugly head.

The league office relocated to Sioux Falls, where Augustana University resides and where the league’s largest and most lucrative event, the Summit League men’s and women’s basketball tournament, has been staged at the Denny Sanford Premier Center for a decade. And, of course, Sanford Health is the lead sponsor.

Sioux Falls is also home to Sanford Health.

Add in the relationship of Summit League commissioner Tom Douple and Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, who considers Douple a “close, personal friend” and you have a little slice of Kentucky in the Mount Rushmore State. Krabbenhoft is a vocal proponent of admitting “Augie” into the Summit League. The Vikings’ entry would bolster Sanford’s headquarters town of Sioux Falls and provide entertainment for the locals. Insiders also speculate that Sanford Health will be a key financial backer of Augie’s move to DI as well. What a shock.

And then, there’s money from Sanford Health – Augustana’s largest corporate athletic sponsor – which owns the land where the Summit League offices will soon sit.

Interestingly, Augustana’s home basketball games will move into the Sanford Pentagon at the Sanford Sports Complex, down the street from the Summit League. Plus, the Summit League is now one member short of an NCAA automatic qualifier in baseball with Fort Wayne’s departure.

And, let’s not forget The Sanford Fieldhouse, one of the latest amenities available to Augustana student-athletes. Viking athletic teams will use the 62,000 square foot Sanford Fieldhouse for various team workouts throughout the school year. Sanford surely would benefit by having a D-I tenant to justify their investment in the facility.

Furthermore, the local Argus Leader newspaper recently reported that Sanford Health will donate $250,000 to every school in the Summit League to establish endowed scholarships. The Argus Leader article revealed that this new ‘gift’ from Sanford Health may grease the palms of member institutions and influence the Augustana decision.

It is all just too cozy and feels more like a ‘payoff for future services’ than a gift with no strings. And the timing? Uncomfortable. Surely, there must be other universities in Minnesota or Wisconsin who are better prepared to make the jump to Division I.

To add to the an already complex situation, Krabbenhoft plans to retire sometime in 2023 at age 65, according to Sioux Falls Business.  And, what if new Sanford Health leadership wants to go a different direction,  be sold or merged with another health concern? This tangled web will be difficult to unwind. Douple will likely lose a lunch buddy, too.

According to our sources, the growing influence of the Summit Leagues gleaming new Sioux Falls headquarters and Sanford facilities is pushing the Summit League to move more conference championships to Sioux Falls – instead of the current method of rewarding the campuses of programs that won the prior season’s regular-season title. This could be damaging to several Denver programs that, despite their success, would have to travel to Sioux Falls to defend their titles.

There is a scheduled League Presidents meeting November 4th in Sioux Falls. Ultimately, it is the University Presidents who vote on new members to the conference. Could the meetings include an actual tour of  Augustana University by the presidents who must eventually extend an invitation to a new member?

Let’s just hope the search extends beyond the Sioux Falls city limits.