Western Illinois Limps Out of the Summit League – What’s Next for DU?

We wrote about the Leathernecks’ possible exit in the past. Located in an inconvenient outpost (Macomb, Illinois) and plagued with declining enrollment, a budget crisis, and plunging athletic success, the Leathernecks announced Friday that they are picking up their bats and balls and headed to the Ohio Valley Conference – populated with ‘similar schools.’

The WIU exit takes the Summit League back to an odd number of teams (9), unbalanced scheduling and five men’s soccer teams and five men’s tennis teams – one fewer than needed for an NCAA conference auto-qualifier. The NCAA will give the conference a year to find new teams before they lose their auto bid but Denver men’s soccer finds itself in a precarious state. The move takes nearly immediate effect, throwing fall schedules into chaos and costing the Leathernecks a million-dollar exit fee.

The rumblings have already started on possible replacements. Augustana (yes, those pesky little guys) are waiting for what seems to be an inevitable seat at the Summit League table with their Dakotas big brothers. And yes, Augie’s addition to the Summit League also includes the shiny new Midco Hockey Arena in Sioux Falls. Coincidentally, Sioux Falls is home base for the Summit League, led by former NCHC hockey commissioner Josh Fenton. The Summit League does not currently offer hockey but who knows? Ah, what a tangled web we weave.

Then, there is the Lindenwood possibility. The newly minted DI program from St. Louis is a member, ironically, of the Ohio Valley Conference that just added men’ soccer to their menu – poaching Summit League men’s soccer affiliate member Lindenwood. Could this be a game of musical chairs? The Lions have a hockey team, too….well, well, well. This seems convenient, doesn’t it?

Of course, the Dakotas schools see the University of Northern Colorado as a possible puzzle piece for unlocking the dream of a Summit League football start-up. Current Summit League member schools would exit the Missouri Valley Conference for a newly configured football conference in the tundra instead of grass. The addition of UNC from the Big Sky Conference would add to the gridiron fun. The northern tier members know that the University of Denver despises UNC as much as the Dakotas schools disdain Augustana as a crowded third DI program in sparsely populated South Dakota. Perhaps DU could be hoodwinked by the Dakotans with the ‘travel partner’ sales pitch or the old ‘take one for the team’ adage. DU could be advised to take their medicine and hold their nose on football with the grand idea to have the conference add hockey, too.

Then again, there is the old tried and true trick perfected by past conference commissioner Tom Douple. He was a master at snatching emerging DII (or DIII like St. Thomas) programs and resurrecting them into new DI conference mates. Unfortunately, this scheme is getting more difficult to pull off as economics and shrinking enrollment plague higher education. What’s a conference to do?

Omaha is left to wonder why its on-campus tour seeking membership in the Missouri Valley Conference failed several years ago. Oral Roberts looks back longingly at their short two year stint in the Southland Conference before joining the Summit League. Even newbie St. Thomas’s is said to be looking down at Summit League membership as a mere stepping stone to a better conference.

And Denver? DU cares most about lacrosse, gymnastics, and hockey – all are in conferences not named the Summit League. And the rest of Denver sports teams? The Summit League is like a place where you can send your stepchildren – without a jacket or lunch money. Nobody will know and nobody will care.

As the Navy SEALS say, ’embrace the suck’.

7 thoughts on “Western Illinois Limps Out of the Summit League – What’s Next for DU?”

  1. Never a big Western Illinois fan, but good for them in finding an appropriate, geographically relevant conference.

    No other conference wants Denver, so we’ll likely continue to rot in the Summit League without a better option.

    For DU, the only way out of this league is spending real money — and until someone opens the checkbook at DU for improvement of men’s basketball to become a desirable program, we’re stuck.

  2. DU was hemorrhaging cash in the 50’s with football – losing over $100,000 dollars then per year. If DU had football today they likely would be in the RMAC. Would people really want to go see South Dakota Mines, Black Hills State, Colorado Mesa, Chadron State, Adams State and School of Mines?

    1. Denver had multiple losing seasons leading up to the termination of the program. Dwindling attendance was a major contributor. Glad to see the Pios have success on multiple sports fronts. However, let’s be honest DU has chosen to be a big fish in a small pond when it comes to athletics.

  3. Thoughts on Colorado Mines moving from DII to DI? Would it be a better long term solution vs UNC?

  4. Good question. Mines has has some great success in D2 – especially basketball and football. I think they are pretty satisfied with their current gig in the RMAC. I just think they are happy where the are but they do have nice facilities and re$ource$.

  5. Today, the median D-I athletic budget is $123 million in the Power 5, $37 million in the Group of 5 and $16.7 million in the FCS. DU spends $40 million+ annually, due to the jet travel reality of getting to opponents from its Colorado location.

    For Mines as a public school with 5K undergrads, that kind of annual outlay is probably a lot more than they want to spend on sports.

Leave a Reply