The Pac-12’s USC and UCLA moving to the Big 10 was just one more move within the Power Five conferences that signaled the formation of another super conference and the continued stratification of Divison I athletics. These seismic changes will reach well beyond football and, eventually, engulf all levels of collegiate sport and usher in a new era of collegiate athletics. Denver must be nimble and well-positioned to take advantage of the rapidly changing landscape.
We have written before about the need for DU to either move to a conference that reflects the school’s educational values, value proposition, marketing optimization, constraints in the new era of NIL (Name, Image, Likeness), the advent and proliferation of the transfer portal, cost of attendance stipends, the potential elimination of conference automatic qualifiers for NCAA tournaments, and unlimited scholarships. All of these changes show that conference affiliation and reach are important to long-term viability.
Don’t think for one minute that these changes will not filter down to the mid-major conferences. The stratification will impact all Division I schools.
Should the University of Denver sit idly by waiting for the collegiate landscape to shake out? If so, DU will miss this window of opportunity to shape the future with peer schools that share these common values. Again, private schools offer an entirely different set of priorities and benefits to student-athletes. Why not leverage those benefits as other private institution conferences have done. The obvious solution which we have discussed extensively is to either join the West Coast Conference (WCC) or create a new midwestern private conference and merge the private schools in the Summit League and the Missouri Valley Conference to form a new private school conference in the midwest.
The WCC has always held the upper hand when considering the University of Denver for membership. That ‘confidence’ is no longer warranted as they watch the Pac-12 dissolve in their own backyard. Surely, they must now understand that an expanded conference with broader reach and major markets is essential to protect what is currently a regional private school conference. Plus, member school Gonzaga has fellow WCC members over the barrel, as always, as the Zags are likely considering exit options and wielding their sizeable influence – thanks solely to its men’s basketball program – over conference members. Seattle University and Denver, two non-members located in large metropolitan areas, are surely on their radar now. The 9-member WCC needs the University of Denver now – maybe more than Denver even needs them.
Denver has another option that could be exercised by taking a page out of the NCHC’s playbook and creating a brand-new conference and putting together a midwest private school coalition. The schools, currently tied to their conferences, could set a future date to establish a new conference. By pulling all the private schools out of the Missouri Valley Conference and Summit League and forming their own conference to complement the Ivy League, BIG EAST, and WCC. This new conference could include Denver, Oral Roberts, and St. Thomas from the Summit and Belmont, Drake, Loyola, Bradley, Valparaiso, and Evansville from the MVC. While this option is not nearly as attractive as the WCC, it is surely a better fit for Denver than the Summit League, a collection of mostly public, northern tier schools amidst this era of instability.
All of this comes at a time when DU has a new athletic director, Josh Berlo. He must be nimble and ready to act, as do Chancellor Jeremy Haefner and the Board of Trustees. A view around collegiate athletics shows that the status quo is no longer an option for any schools. These changes are about more than Oklahoma and Texas or USC and UCLA. The ripple effects will impact DU along with every D1 program in America.