Denver to join Summit League in 2013
In a stunning conclusion to a story arc that began 2 years and 2 weeks ago — when Denver threw a big party to celebrate its invitation to the Western Athletic Conference, which the university viewed as proof its athletic program had truly arrived — word leaked out in the last hour that Denver will join the Summit League in 2013-14, after just one year as a member of the WAC. [UPDATE: Confirmed. Press conference tomorrow at noon in the Champions Room at Magness Arena.]
A couple of quotes from Denver administrators on the occasion of their joining the WAC really bring home what an sad and remarkable turnabout this is.
“The Western Athletic Conference is an iconic athletics conference associated with the West,” DU Chancellor Robert Coombe said on November 11, 2010. “We are absolutely thrilled — absolutely thrilled — to become a member of the Western Athletic Conference.”
“This is a day of celebration,” Denver’s vice chancellor for athletics and recreation, Peg Bradley‐Doppes, said then. “There were some happy tears with our alums coming in. This is a day that we all envisioned. We didn’t know when it would happen, but we had the dream. The dream is now a reality.”
But joining the WAC began looking less and less like a “dream” almost immediately after that celebratory day. Indeed, the first warning sign occurred on the very day of the announcement, when then-commissioner Karl Benson revealed during a press teleconference, conducted from an office at DU’s Ritchie Center mere minutes before the big party/press conference, that he had hoped to announce Montana and Montana State joining the league on the same day that Denver, Texas State, and Texas-San Antonio did, but the Montana schools had backed out at the last minute. (Texas State and UTSA, incidentally, would bolt in early 2012, staying in the WAC for only one year — just like Denver is doing, as it turns out.)
My first blog post about Denver’s move was titled “Is Denver too excited about joining the WAC?” The very next day after that post was published, while I was in attendance at a DU game — with then-commissioner Karl Benson in the building — news broke that Hawaii was leaving the WAC. Suddenly, joining the WAC looked less like “climbing new peaks,” and more like boarding the Titanic. “Folks, Denver joined a zombie conference,” I opined when the Hawaii news became official in December 2010.
What followed was two years’ worth of #PANICs, followed by reprieves, followed by further #PANICs. #ZombieWAC, #WACPANIC, and “[such-and-such failed entity] is joining the WAC as its 8th football member” became mini-memes on Twitter. Karl Benson, the man who lured Denver away from the Sun Belt to join the WAC, was himself lured away from the WAC to become the Sun Belt’s commissioner as the WAC’s walls crumbled around him. “Worst-case scenario” was defined down repeatedly. A once-proud conference found itself clinging to Utah State as its flagship member — and then, after a mass defection by Utah State and four others, found itself clinging to, well, Denver as a flagship member. It got to the point where Cal State Bakersfield and once-rejected Utah Valley joining the league was cause for celebration. And always, always, the ever-present specter of more turmoil, more instability, hung like a dark cloud over everything.
In my post about UVU and CSB joining what would have been a six-team league next season — Idaho, New Mexico State, Denver, Seattle, Utah Valley and Cal State Bakersfield — I mentioned the Summit League as one of “the Pioneers’ paltry non-WCC alternatives,” along with the Big Sky or a return to the Sun Belt. I had no inside information; indeed, the DU folks I work with have displayed admirable poker faces in recent weeks as I’ve joked with them about WAC alternatives and the conspicuous absence of a WAC mural on the wall outside the Pioneers’ locker room, where the Sun Belt mural used to be. Surely they knew this was coming, but they gave no hint. Instead, my speculation about the Summit League was based purely on geography and process of elimination. There just aren’t that many options in the West for a mid-major seeking a home.
Anyway, it seems DU has decided to go the Summit League route. (The Summit is also the league formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference, a.k.a. the “Badlands” to you Mid-Majority types.) Whether Denver considered the Big Sky or Sun Belt, whether they sought out those leagues but were rejected, or whether the Summit League was simply deemed the most preferable of that trio of options, I have no idea. But what’s clear is that the Pioneers have seemingly opted for the relative stability of a decidedly unsexy but serviceable league — one that’s more geographically sensible for Denver than the Sun Belt, and more compact than the increasingly sprawling WAC (which was probably going to need to add Texas-Pan American and Chicago State to survive in the short term—and will definitely need to do so now, unless commissioner Jeff Hurd simply decides to give up).
Denver’s athletic budget ($24.6M) and men’s basketball budget ($2.4M) will make them an immediate big dog in the Summit League, where the current leaders in those categories, respectively, are North Dakota State ($15.4M) and Oakland ($1.6M), and the averages are $10.5M and $0.98M. Basketball-wise, you’d expect Denver to enter on the top tier of the Summit, alongside some combination of Oakland (of Michigan, not California), South Dakota State (Jackrabbits are not scary), and maybe North Dakota State (which, you may recall, gave Kansas a scare in 2009).
(Oral Roberts rivaled Oakland as the class of the conference before bolting for the Southland last year. Valparaiso was once the conference’s most prominent member, and memorably earned the league’s last non-play-in-game win in the NCAA Tournament in 1998 — you might remember it — but the Crusaders joined the Horizon League in 2007. Also, there is now talk of Oakland and IPFW looking at Horizon membership themselves. Hey, I said “relative” stability. In this era of constant realignment, nowhere is completely stable.)
For Denver’s men’s basketball program, it seems to me, the goal remains the same as it would have been in the WAC: treat the next few years as an opportunity to audition for the WCC, which remains Denver’s true “dream” destination. With, presumably, 18 league games instead of 10, at least the non-conference scheduling challenge won’t be quite so daunting. And the Summit/Mid-Con, although a one-bid league for 14 straight seasons, has recently tended to place teams on the #13 or #14 seed lines, which makes NCAA Tournament upsets plausible.
Just as important, if not moreso, the possibility of imminent doom hopefully will not hover over the Summit League like it has over the WAC. As I said: stability, not sexiness.
All in all, I think this is a good move for Denver. It’s not one that will have folks jumping for joy; instead, the reaction is likely to be more one of sad resignation at What Realignment Hath Wrought. But, faced with an array of bad options, DU has opted for relative stability and geographic sanity.
UPDATE: Here’s the official announcement of the announcement. They’re combining the Summit League news with the Athletic Department’s standard weekly press conference with the coaches:
University of Denver Weekly Press Conference/Conference Affiliation Announcement
Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 12 p.m. MT
Champions Room (concourse level of Magness Arena)
11:50 a.m. - Pizza available
12 p.m. - Comments from Peg Bradley-Doppes, Vice Chancellor for Athletics and Recreation and Richie Center Operations, and other dignitaries about conference affiliation.
12:15 p.m. - Comments from women’s basketball head coach Kerry Cremeans
12:25 p.m. - Comments from hockey head coach George Gwozdecky
For joining the Summit League? A 15-minute press conference.
(In fairness, it wasn’t Winter Interterm Break then; it is now. But still. The different in excitement level feels pretty stark.)