Posts Tagged ‘UIC Flames’

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Ever since the Big 12 decided to not propose to anyone after its Bachelor-esque expansion process back in the fall of last year, we have had one of the deadest periods in conference realignment news of any substance in this century. At least for the Power Five conferences, the world has entered into an era of stability. Until some combination of Texas, Oklahoma and/or Kansas decides that they no longer want to stay in the Big 12, it’s difficult to see much movement in the near future at the Power Five level.

However, the stability at the top has allowed for the non-power conferences to reassess their own long-term plans. The American Athletic Conference was the league that was most at risk in the Big 12 expansion process with Houston, Cincinnati and UConn being heavily discussed as potential invites. Now that the Big 12 has given the AAC a reprieve, the Group of Five league’s members know that they’re legitimately in this particular home for the long haul whether they like it or not. As a result, this is the first time since the AAC was formed in the wake of the collapse of the old Big East football conference that its member schools are truly looking at their respective futures within the AAC as opposed to outside of it.

Over the past few weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports from various outlets that the AAC is interested in adding current Missouri Valley Conference school Wichita State as a non-football member*, culminating in a report from Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated from this past Saturday that the AAC and Wichita State are engaged in expansion talks with mutual interest.

(* A pet peeve of mine in conference realignment stories is when there’s a reference to “basketball-only” membership since it wrongly implies that a school is being added only for basketball. Instead, such school is being added for all sports for which the league sponsors except for football, which is why it is really a “non-football member.)

I’ll be honest: I have been a long-time skeptic of both the AAC wanting to add non-football members and Wichita State’s chances of escaping the MVC. On the AAC side, the divide between the old Big East’s football and non-football schools was a major factor in the eventual dissolution of that league and the memories of how the Catholic 7 (Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Marquette and DePaul) split off to form the current Big East have still been fresh. From the Wichita State angle, they always seemed to be a classic fan favorite for expansion based on on-the-court performance but not a university president favorite with respect to academics and TV markets (similar to Boise State football). Interestingly, unlike most non-power conference schools, Wichita State actually didn’t have an issue with financial resources. When Shocker basketball coach Gregg Marshall was being courted by Alabama a couple of years ago, Charles Koch (most well-known with his brother David as the duo in charge of Koch Industries and arguably the most powerful and influential fundraisers for the Republican Party and conservative causes) spearheaded a group of boosters to make Marshall one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the country. However, the stances of the AAC and MWC to not add non-football schools (at least up until apparently now) and the lack of institutional and geographic fits with the Big East, Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference meant that the MVC was looking like Wichita State’s only realistic choice.

As a result, the AAC backing off of its stance against non-football members will end up being a Godsend for Wichita State assuming that this proposed expansion is finalized. Wichita State was going to have to start looking at initiating an FBS football program in order to find a different league… and even if they were to do that, it would have been no guarantee that they would have received an invite from the Sun Belt (much less the AAC or MWC). The fact that the Shockers are in position to be able to get into the AAC without needing to go through the extremely risky and expensive process of starting up an FBS football team is everything that the school could have possibly wished for outside of a non-football invite to a Power Five conference.

For the AAC’s part, the proposed addition of Wichita State indicates that football can no longer be the only conference realignment consideration for leagues that are outside of the Power Five world. The Group of Five leagues are earning less TV money with both football and basketball than the new Big East is with just basketball alone, which shows that a strong college basketball brand still has value in the marketplace compared to a weaker college football brand. Even if TV money isn’t taken into account, the Group of Five leagues are inherently going to be more reliant on revenue from NCAA Tournament credits (which rise when each conference member advances a round in the Big Dance) compared to the Power Five leagues since those basketball dollars are going to be a larger share for them compared to College Football Playoff dollars. Indeed, Thamel and others have pointed out that Wichita State won’t likely add much to the value of the AAC’s TV contract, but it can certainly drive a lot of conference revenue in the form of winning games in the NCAA Tournament (which earns additional credits).

So, several years after hybrid conferences were declared by the public at-large to be dead, it’s possible that those league formats could be making a comeback. The Mountain West Conference would certainly look better if it could add this year’s national runner-up Gonzaga, although the West Coast Conference is in a much stronger position to protect its membership due to the presence of BYU and the uniform institutional fit of all members being private schools in the West (similar to the Big East on the other side of the country). (Personally, I don’t believe that the WCC is poachable unless the Big East to decide to go waaaaaaay outside of its current geographic footprint.) In terms of the prospects for other recent NCAA Tournament darlings, Florida Gulf Coast has had the Shocker-esque problem of being a non-football school that’s a geographic outlier, but they could fit really well with Conference USA if that league were to entertain a hybrid membership again. Plus, FGCU is located in the Fort Myers-Naples market that is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country and a massive amount of wealth due to its significant snowbird population with little direct spectator sports competition.

Meanwhile, the single act of Wichita State leaving the MVC for the AAC can have a significant ripple effect throughout the non-football Division I conferences. When Creighton left for the new Big East in 2013, the MVC looked heavily at replenishing its membership with Illinois-Chicago (UIC) and Valparaiso from the Horizon League prior to settling upon Loyola University Chicago. My impression is that the MVC will look at both UIC and Valpo again since strengthening that league’s Chicago area presence is likely a top priority for that league’s presidents. While MVC fans might prefer to add better on-the-court options that might be located in smaller markets (such as Murray State, South Dakota State or North Dakota State), there’s a much bigger picture in play here: the MVC schools themselves cannot survive without as many tuition-paying students from the Chicago area specifically as possible. With public school budgets getting slashed and private university enrollments falling outside of the elite tier, the competition for tuition dollars is only getting tougher as the number of college students declines overall. Illinois has turned into the largest net exporter of students to out-of-state colleges of any state in the country. The three biggest beneficiaries of this net outflow from Illinois just happen to be the states of Iowa, Indiana and Missouri… which happen to form the MVC footprint along with Illinois itself. In essence, the Chicagoland area is to general student recruiting as the state of Texas is to football recruiting and the MVC schools need to keep growing their share of that pool. Therefore, the MVC gaining even a handful of extra impressions per year in the Chicago region by playing a school like UIC can be critical to, say, Drake and Evansville (much less in-state Illinois schools like Bradley, Illinois State and Southern Illinois). The MVC is going to be a one-bid league going forward if Wichita State leaves no matter who it can realistically add (e.g. adding A-10 schools such as St. Louis and Dayton is NOT realistic), so the leadership of that league is likely going to focus much more on off-the-court factors compared to on-the-court performance. That also means that it would be a bit surprising if the MVC decided to replace Wichita State with multiple schools to go up to 12 members (as keeping the membership total at 10 would maximize per school payouts of NCAA Tournament and other conference-level revenue).

If the MVC poaches from the Horizon League, that could put schools like IUPUI (from the Summit League) or Belmont (from the Ohio Valley Conference) in play as targets. It will be interesting to see just how much realignment will ultimately occur throughout the Division I ranks simply based on Wichita State being added as a non-football member to the AAC.

What impact does all of these potential moves have on the Power Five conferences? We’ll have more on that soon.

(Image from Business Insider)

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I’ve been getting a lot of requests for comment on some proposed legislation by an Illinois state representative from Naperville to have a feasibility study performed on whether another Illinois public university can be added to the Big Ten. Here is the full text of the proposed bill. Note that I actually live in Naperville, but the applicable representative (Michael Connelly) doesn’t represent the portion of town that I live in.

Most people that have a passing understanding of conference realignment know that the odds of the feasibility of the Big Ten expanding with any school from the state of Illinois is less than zero (but we’ll spell it out here for any first time readers that haven’t been paying attention to this issue for the past several years). First of all, what the Illinois State Legislature wants is completely irrelevant to Big Ten expansion. They might have some control over the University of Illinois specifically, but Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and every other Big Ten school (even Northwestern) would laugh off any attempt for some type of legislative intervention. Second, a viable Big Ten candidate needs a combination of FBS football credentials, academic prowess (preferably membership in the Association of American Universities, which is an extremely select group of top tier research institutions) and, most importantly of all, additional media value in the form of new TV markets and/or a national brand name (i.e. Notre Dame). Considering that the entire state of Illinois is already receiving the Big Ten Network at the maximum cable carriage rate, any additional school from the state would add exactly $0 in TV revenue for the conference. That would actually mean that all other Big Ten universities would lose money with an Illinois-based expansion by splitting the pie further without making the overall pie larger… and the Big Ten isn’t making moves in order to lose money. Plus, the only other public university that even plays FBS football is Northern Illinois, who isn’t anywhere near AAU status on the academic front (and realistically never will be with its mission). If the State of Illinois wants to spend a single dime on whether it’s feasible for another public university here to join the Big Ten, then the legislature is flushing money down the toilet that it doesn’t have.

That being said, let’s not throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater on what ought to be the real intent of this legislation: creating a stronger #2 public university in the State of Illinois behind the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (abbreviated as UIUC for ease of discussion here, although I’ve always thought that was a clumsy abbreviation as an Illinois grad) regardless of any Big Ten prospects (which are non-existent in reality). What I hope is that my fellow Naperville native can’t possibly be this naive and is just using the Big Ten name as a headline grabber in order to shine the light on the very real problem that the academic quality gap between UIUC and the rest of the state’s public universities is so large that Illinois high school grads are heading to out-of-state colleges at a rate that dwarfs almost every other state in the country.

In the typical competitive Chicago suburban high school, the top 5% of the class or so is generally gunning for the Ivy League and Ivy-caliber schools (i.e. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, etc.). The next 5% is the group that UIUC generally targets (with a little bit of variation depending upon the program – engineering and business require top 5% credentials these days, whereas an applicant might be able to get by with being in the top 15% for liberal arts). Regardless, an Illinois high school grad is pretty well-covered if he or she is in the top 10% of his/her high school class and the 90th percentile in SAT or ACT scores.

The problem is the massive academic reputation gap between UIUC  and the rest of the in-state schools. For the very large group of kids that rank between the top 10% and top 30% of their class (people that still have good-but-not-elite grades and test scores and make up a huge share of the college student population), UIUC is getting too tough to get into while the rest of the in-state schools are way too easy to get into in relation to their credentials. There’s no compelling option in-between that’s a solid fit for that group of students. In the latest US News rankings for undergraduate programs at national universities, UIUC is ranked #41 in the nation, but then there isn’t another Illinois public school until the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) at #128. Farther down the list are Illinois State (#152), Northern Illinois (#177) and Southern Illinois (#177). It just so happens that neighboring schools like Indiana, Purdue, Iowa and Missouri are in the top 100 of the US News rankings and have admissions standards that perfectly align to those top 10%-30% students that can’t get into UIUC, so Illinois kids go to those schools in massive numbers* and are willing to pay out-of-state tuition for them (which is still relatively less expensive compared to a lot of lower-ranked private university options). According to the Chicago Tribune, there was an outflow of 30,000 freshmen students from Illinois to out-of-state schools and an inflow of 17,000 last year, which is a negative outflow of 13,000.** The academic quality gap is exactly why this is occurring.

(* Last year, the Chicago Tribune put together this fascinating database of where Illinois high school students currently go to out-state colleges. Not surprisingly, schools in neighboring states drew the largest numbers, with Iowa and Missouri having more than 1000 Illinois students each in their respective freshmen classes last year, while Indiana, Marquette, Wisconsin, Purdue, St. Louis University and Iowa State all had over 500 Illinois freshmen. Interestingly, Arizona State, Colorado, Kentucky and Kansas all drew more Illinois students than Ohio State, with all of them getting just under 200 Illinois freshmen each. Other popular power conference destinations for Illinois students outside of the Midwest are Arizona, Vanderbilt and Miami, with over 100 Illinois freshmen each. After this hellacious winter, I can’t blame any Chicagoan heading to some place where you can wear shorts in the middle of January. Meanwhile, Alabama and Ole Miss surprisingly draw more Illinois students than Nebraska, while Rutgers only has 10 Illinois freshmen. Maryland and Penn State don’t show up in this data set, which doesn’t mean anything one way or another, as some schools like Harvard that definitely have Illinois students aren’t listed here.)

(** New Jersey is a state with an even larger outflow of college students and has almost the exact same issue as Illinois: a very large drop in the rankings of its public universities after its flagship of Big Ten newcomer Rutgers.)

UIC is probably the only public school in Illinois that has a realistic chance of filling that gap since its faculty quality is already on the higher end compared to its admissions standards, the school is solid in STEM areas since it houses the University of Illinois system’s medical and pharmacy schools, and has what is now considered to be a very desirable location in the West Loop neighborhood of Chicago. (UIC was actually a visiting member of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) that’s considered to be the academic arm of the Big Ten for nearly 30 years, but that status was revoked following the conference’s admission of Nebraska.) The main issue is that UIC’s reputation in professional circles (outside of medicine and pharmacy) actually lags behind its perception in academia, and changes there seem to be glacial. Every Big Ten school has a stronger professional network in Chicago in the finance and tech areas that fuel the influx of new college grads every year in Lincoln Park and Lakeview, and UIC still has to catch up to regional private Catholic schools like Loyola, DePaul and Marquette on that front, too. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy – UIC won’t move up in professional prestige without attracting better students, but such better students won’t go there until UIC moves up in professional prestige.

(* Up until 20 years ago, that location was considered to be a major liability when it was far from gentrified. I know this area well since my parents both graduated from there and my father worked there for 30 years, so I have a lot of affinity for the school. My father used to get his hubcaps stolen quite frequently back in the day and we used to joke that we could buy them back at the old Maxwell Street market adjacent to UIC, which was featured in the John Lee Hooker scene in The Blues Brothers. Needless to say, the old Maxwell Street was moved for UIC’s expansion several years ago and what used to be a seedy neighborhood has turned into a land of high-priced condos and restaurants.)

The other practical problem is that it would take a ton of investment from the state to get UIC up to the level of schools that are strong non-flagships (i.e. Michigan State, Purdue, Miami University of Ohio, etc.), yet the state keeps reducing the money to public universities every single year (and as noted, the state doesn’t have the money to give it to them even if they wanted to). Regardless, I hope that some type of better realistic in-state option exists by the time my 4-year old twins are ready to go to college in 13 years. If Representative Connelly can ensure that the focus is on that particular academic goal (as opposed to Big Ten membership specifically, which is a waste of time and resources because it will never happen), then I’m game.

(Image from PIPBlog)