News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 17, 2012

TODD GOLDEN: ISU needs to have its realignment head on a swivel

TERRE HAUTE — Have you ever driven past a cow pasture during a severe thunderstorm? If it’s really bad, the cows will congregate in a herd to protect themselves from the tumult.

I saw it once on a road trip in the middle of a hellacious hailstorm in deep southern Indiana and it was kind of awe-inspiring. A flash of lightning in the darkness and a crack of thunder on a barely drivable interstate, and to my right, there were about 10 cows on a lonely hillside huddled together to protect one another.

That’s how it’s felt to be in the Missouri Valley Conference since Division I conference realignment madness began in 2009. It seemed that the MVC’s schools had huddled together and avoided the damage that left some conferences — the Western Athletic Conference and the Big East Conference, to name two — in tatters.

In fact, it seemed the MVC would miraculously suffer no damage whatsoever … the MVC was the only major conference not to have a membership change since the mid-1990s.

And until last Friday, it appeared it would stay that way.

But all it took was a big tree to fall — in this case the implosion of the Big East — and it sent the MVC’s cows scattering.

Nothing official has happened in the MVC yet, but speculation began in earnest that the so-called Catholic Seven — the schools that officially announced their intention to split from the Big East on Saturday — are considering MVC lynchpin Creighton for membership in their new loop.

Moreover, speculation continues to swirl around Evansville and a potential departure to the Horizon League. Evansville continually denies it, but the rumored move continues to pop up on a semi-regular basis.

The Catholic Seven situation is not set in stone. It’s not known how many schools it intends to add and where Creighton ranks in their pecking order. It’s not known whether they will keep the Big East Conference name. It’s not known when the conference can legally be started based on Big East by-laws. There’s no existing TV contract and there’s a looming question as to whether the schools that leave get to keep their NCAA men’s basketball tournament units, a lucrative financial consideration.

But the cows are scattering amid the thunder and lightning that buffets the MVC. According to Indiana State Director of Athletics Ron Prettyman and other published reports, the MVC’s presidents were to discuss the matter of Creighton’s potential departure and the MVC’s future on Sunday.

“I pay attention to it. I know there’s a lot of talk. All I can say is that I trust [MVC commissioner] Doug Elgin and his staff. It’s a tremendous basketball league and I think everyone knows it. We’ve been together this far. This is a good home. If something changes, I’m sure Doug Elgin and his staff will handle it,” said ISU men’s basketball coach Greg Lansing after Saturday’s victory at IUPUI.

Where does all of this leave the Sycamores? Frankly, not in an ideal position. ISU has very little leverage to play.

“We have neither pursued another conference nor has another conference pursued us,” said Prettyman in Sunday’s Tribune-Star.

There is the chance that conference angst could be much ado about nothing. There are still scenarios at play that could strengthen the MVC.

If the Catholic Seven only want a 10-team conference, a possibility reported by ESPN on Sunday, it could benefit the MVC as Creighton would likely stay in the MVC and some Midwestern Atlantic 10 Conference schools could be ripe for the picking.

There are also the inevitable legal battles between the Catholic Seven and the remaining Big East teams, which could push the new league’s startup to 2014-15.

Then again, there are scenarios that could send the MVC into diminished relevance. The fear is that there could be a domino effect if Creighton leaves which sends other schools scattering to find new affiliation — a game of musical chairs that could have devastating consequences for the schools left without a chair.

What could be on the table for ISU? Here are some scenarios, a few more realistic than others:

• Maintain the status quo in MVC — This is the most comfortable option and the one that Prettyman said was ISU’s plan at present. The rewards and risks of this were mentioned above.

• Explore a move to the Horizon League — The Horizon League is a Midwestern-based, basketball-only league that has schools with budgets and outlooks that are similar to ISU’s. Without Butler, the league isn’t as strong as the current MVC, but there are still decent programs in it. Travel would be also be comparable to the MVC.

Youngstown State, a MVFC member, plays in the Horizon League, so ISU’s football program would not likely be impacted. If the MVC were to crater, this would be the league that would make the most sense for ISU to land in.

But the truth is that some Horizon schools could be poached by the MVC if it expands membership. So, in effect, if ISU maintains status quo it could end up with some current Horizon schools as partners anyway.

• Explore a move up to FBS football — FBS football would give ISU more conference alignment options (in theory) and would line ISU for better football paydays. Suddenly … the Mid-American Conference or Sun Belt Conference could be options.

If it were that simple to move up, it might have already happened, but ISU isn’t in anything like a financial or facility position to make the move to FBS. There are also Title IX considerations that come with the additional football scholarships required to play FBS football.

Moreover, a FCS school can’t just move up on its own, it must be invited by a FBS conference. Is any current FBS conference in a position where it would invite ISU? Highly doubtful. ISU’s stadium also doesn’t have the capacity to meet the minimum 15,000 FBS attendance requirement, nor anything like the support.

I’m not sure many current MVC/MVFC schools are ready for a move up, despite some schools (Illinois State, Northern Iowa) that have talked about it or allegedly explored it.

• Explore a move to the Ohio Valley Conference — Could ISU say the heck with it and put all of its eggs — football included — in the OVC’s basket? It’s been bandied about by some in the past, including a few ISU coaches from time to time.

For the love of all that is holy, I hope ISU to the OVC never happens.

My vehement opposition to the OVC aside, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for ISU if things get hairy in the MVC and options dry up elsewhere.

I’m dead set against OVC membership because I think ISU is too big for it: its facilities far exceed that of most OVC schools, OVC schools are rarely on TV, and ISU’s access to the NCAA Tournament in all sports would be severely curtailed.

It only makes sense from a budgetary standpoint … and even that’s questionable, as the MVC generates more revenue than the OVC. Sure ISU would likely get more Ws, but they’d be relatively meaningless Ws. I’d rather ISU aspire to win at the MVC level, even a diminished MVC, where the wins carry more weight.

The OVC would be a worst-case scenario for ISU. But in this landscape, it behooves one to say never say never.

The point of these scenarios is not to suggest a specific roadmap for ISU, but to suggest vigilance and open-mindedness.

ISU has a plan for athletics it is eager to achieve within its own timeline. But if the collegiate athletics landscape moves faster than ISU’s plan called for — it appears increasingly obvious that it is — the responsibility falls on ISU to be ready and willing to change with the times, not let change come to ISU whether it likes it or not.

ISU also needs to look out for its interests ahead of that of its conference. I can assure you that while the majority of the MVC schools are happy with their conference affiliation, as ISU is, they won’t think twice to make a move that suits their interests and leaves the stragglers behind.

ISU has to think the same way. It has to have its head on a swivel and be proactive, not reactive.

When those cows scatter in a field, most of the time, the majority make it through the storm. Vigilance and willingness to act will prevent ISU from being one of the unfortunates that doesn’t make it.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com. Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd

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