We've spent most of the last week in the Missouri Valley Conference, an annual trip of ours since The Mid-Majority's second season. People often ask me, "Why do you always say that the Valley is the best mid-major conference in the country?" It's a harder sell nowadays, as the MVC will, most likely, be a one-bid league for the third consecutive season. Major coaching turnover since the four-berth season in 2006, as well as a general change in scheduling philosophy, has taken the Valley farther away from its latest glory days than a calendar would indicate. But I've always said that the Valley is more than a basketball league, that it's a special and unique place that contains history, texture and a depth of storytelling not found in any other of the Other 24.And to help me make my case, I've enlisted the help of the people who know the Valley best of all -- Mike Kern, Joe Mitch and Jack Watkins from the MVC office in St. Louis, as well as 22nd-year league commissioner Doug Elgin. My own experiences and impressions, from an outsider who's come to dearly love the Valley over a few short years, are interspersed in amongst their wide-angle recollections. Their words are italic, mine are not, and I took all the pictures.The Missouri Valley Conference has been many things throughout its long history. It has been a trail-blazer, its roots firmly planted in the early part of the 20th century, springing forth just a year after the NCAA was formed. The Valley's foundation was forged by a group of forward-thinking athletics administrators that included Dr. James Naismith, the very father of basketball.It is a league that has survived great change. Six member schools departed in 1928. That was only one of many internal transformations; 32 institutions held MVC membership in the conference's century of existence. The Valley has spurred social evolution, too: it was a conference way ahead of its time, one of the very first collegiate leagues to break the color barrier by actively recruiting African-American student-athletes in the early Fifties... years before the idea took hold in other regions of the country. Today, the Valley's 10 Midwestern institutions are very diverse in many ways: six are public institutions and four are private, ranging in size between 2,500 students to 23,000, located in towns of 30,000 as well as cities of half a million.But these schools have far more in common than might first meet the eye. Virtually every member institution has a long, rich athletic history, and in these Midwestern college towns and metropolitan areas, these teams have been so important to generations of alumni and fans. In men's basketball, there is great pride in the past -- with national championships, Final Four appearances, and deep runs in the NCAA and NIT Tournaments. There have been Hall-of-Fame coaches and student-athletes that remain household names to this day. It is a league with great and storied rivalries - Bradley and Illinois State are situated just 39 miles apart in Central Illinois; Drake and Northern Iowa meet amongst the Tall Corn; Evansville and Indiana State battle in a state consumed with college basketball. There are longer-distance rivalries, too, such as when postseason perennials Creighton and Southern Illinois meet. Wichita State and Missouri State, though separated by a long afternoon's drive, always seem to produce scrappy classics. The relative position of Valley schools in the current NCAA Division I structure binds these institutions together, and has created unusual harmony and camaraderie. The 10 schools of the MVC share a bond as underdogs - institutions that are under-resourced and under-publicized, but that over-achieve all the same. The league has earned 16 at-large bids in the past 16 years, placing three teams in the NCAA Tournament in 1999 and 2005 and four teams in 2006. While the Valley is generally considered to be in the "mid-major" classification by most observers, it is clearly unique among the non-BCS conferences.
It's not on any published map, but the Valley is a place. A real, actual geographic location -- with borders and square mileage and everything. There are no signs that welcome visitors, but you know that when you enter the Valley, you're in a different place; you're keenly aware that you've left when you're gone. The Valley overlaps state borders, encompassing Nebraska and Kansas and Iowa and Missouri and Illinois and Indiana. It exists in shadow against "Big Ten Country" and "Big XII Nation" like a double-exposed photographic negative, or a transparent slide on an overhead projector.
The Valley is strung together with long and straight highways. It's open plains and miles between exits. It's HyVees and Kum & Go's and Casey's and Huck's. But most of all, it's a land of contentment. The players and coaches may arrive and leave, but the fans stick around. Between games, they grow up and find their places in the Valley -- at the insurance agency, or the heating/cooling company, or the few factories that are left there. They find happiness in their homes, their lawns and gardens, their spouses and kids and grandchildren. The younger generations will have their phases and urges and their melodramas, and a few will leave the Valley for good. But most will stay, and find where they fit. They'll learn that calm is better than turbulent change, that safety and security will always trump manufactured danger.
The Valley voted overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008; they'll vote for whomever the Republicans put up in 2012. Not because of who those people are, per se. The Valley will never trust anybody from the outside that would dare dictate its terms of existence in any way, and will put its faith in those who will leave it alone. The Valley knows that those outside its wide-open spaces don't fully grasp its rhythms and ways. It finds campaign visits with rolled-up sleeves and flannel shirts both flattering and humorous; the Valley doesn't really "get" them, either. There's an active, thinking-person's conservatism here, rooted in the knowledge of incurable mutual misunderstanding.
But the Valley is connected with the country at large by the shared language of Our Game: forwards, guards, high screens and pick-and-rolls. We all operate under the same system of mathematics: 40 minutes, 94 feet, two and three points. And through this great sport, I came to know the Valley. It's always a family atmopshere in Peoria. Numerous generations -- young and old -- have shared and passed along stories of the Famous Five, the National Invitation Tournament titles, Robertson Field House, Paul Unruh, and Chet the Jet. Modern day Hilltop fans fixate on the undefeated MVC season in 1986, Dick Versace, Jim Les, Hersey "The Hawk" Hawkins and his nation's-best scoring average in 1988... and more recently, the Sweet Sixteen campaign of 2006.
I received my virtual introduction to the Valley by way of Bradley. Back in our first season, during that first 100 Games Project, college students with bradley.edu e-mail addresses would write to me quoting stats and seasons, invoking names of Braves who hadn't taken the court in 60 years. I thought, how could this be? Were these aging professors posing as students, and why? The next year, during the star-crossed season of 2005-06, I figured it all out for myself. Hours before tipoff, I parked my rental car in downtown Peoria near a little old porn shop, and entered the hulking Civic Center. I watched Carver Arena fill up slowly -- I remember thinking that I'd never seen so many white-haired people at one basketball game before. But then I realized I'd never seen so many children running around the aisles, either. Four generations in a single arena; and that's when I fully understood.
The Valley is a continuum. It was there before people my age was even born, and it will continue to exist when all of us are gone. At places like Bradley, the older generations impress upon the young kids the stories and tales of the past; most of all, they teach them the importance of showing up and seeing for themselves the new stories unfold.Hall of Fame Coach Eddie Hickey brought Creighton to the third-ever NCAA Tournament in 1941. Then, a Bluejay basketball player named Bob Gibson took professional turns as a Harlem Globetrotter. Paul Silas set NCAA rebounding records, won NBA titles with Boston, and later became a coach and executive in the pros. Led by Dana Altman, Creighton has built the kind of program that others in the league now aspire to become. The Jays have put together twelve straight postseason-worthy seasons, six Arch Madness titles... as well as a 17,000-seat arena, the true Taj Mahal of the Valley's civic buildings. Bluejay basketball converts Nebraska football fans into hoops junkies in the winter, and the Qwest Center packs in some of the largest crowds in the country on a weekly basis.
The first Valley game I ever attended as a national sportswriter was Bradley-Creighton at the Qwest Center, January 2006. That was when I was introduced to the Creighton crazies, who can write funnier signs than anyone, yell for two hours minutes as if life on earth would cease if they stopped, and, as per Valley legend, drink any other fanbase under any table, anywhere. I remember sitting next to the Bluejay bench, listening to the coach scream hoarse instructions during the huddles (Altman's Army, indeed). But in all of that loudness, I'll never forget a tiny little quiet moment.
Seconds before tipoff, one of the officials from the scorer's table came over to my station with the ball. "Touch it," he said. "For good luck." I assumed he meant good luck for me
, because I sure needed it. But it was such a kind and unexpected gesture, an invitation to a complete outsider to come through the Valley's front door. And it was a great game.There's a real Ivy League feel at Drake. It's a school known more for Canadian Football League star Johnny Bright and the Drake Relays, but the Bulldog basketball program has had its share of success. MVC Hall of Fame Coach Maury John authored the "Belly-Button Defense," leading the Dogs to the 1969 Final Four -- losing narrowly to UCLA in the semis before crushing North Carolina in the consolation game by 20 points. And Drake's Cinderella season in 2008 was the talk of the entire nation, led by the Valley's ultimate Everyman player, Adam Emmenecker.
The Valley is a land of seemingly endless highways, and the miles between its circle of arenas is usually measured in three-digit numbers. When you get to a city, it's always a welcome relief, and perhaps none so much as Des Moines. The skyline might emerge out of a thick fog, as it did last Sunday, beautiful brown-gray buildings with red neon and slow-blinking lights. In the deep grid of the city's northern streets is the Knapp Center, where people of all ages go to see the Bulldogs play.
Every time I've gone there, the atmosphere is always so hopeful -- a spirit embodied by 1969 hero and current radio commentator Dolph Pulliam
, who wore a lucky blue leather suit all through the stunning 2008 miracle season. (He's lost a lot of weight since then, and the suit doesn't fit anymore!) Whether the team is good or bad, the fans all sit on the edges of their seats, ready to explode in applause whenever the slightest thing goes right. Drake may be another Valley also-ran again, but the glasses there are always 51 percent full.Sleeves and tragedy. It's said that Arad McCutchan put his players in half-sleeves to give his team an advantage in the winter cold. Did it work? Powered by two-time All-American and Utah Jazz current head coach Jerry Sloan, the Purple Aces won consecutive NCAA College Division titles in 1964 and 1965, with Jerry Sloan leading the way. The Seventies were forever marked by tragedy and loss when the entire UE men's basketball program, including head coach Bobby Watson, was killed in a 1977 plane crash. Jim Crews later led Evansville to unmatched Division I success, taking the Purple Aces to the NCAA Tournament in 1989, 1992, 1993 and 1999.
When I think of Evansville, I think of Ski soda, the secret orange-and-lemon treat of Southern Indiana. I think of the vertigo palace that is the Roberts Stadium press box, almost directly over the action at an elevation of 50 feet. I recall the local radio guy who told me all about the city's minor-league indoor-football legacy, and how Evansville was on the circuit for all the kids' themed ice shows. ("Blue's Clues... on ice
. Dora the Explorer... on ice
. We'd like to get the original production once in a while.")
But I most remember Dec. 27, 2007, the night they tried to bring the famous sleeves back. It was alumnus Marty Simmons' first season as head coach, and he hung white sleeved jerseys
in the locker room for the Aces' Valley opener against Indiana State. And Evansville played horribly, shooting just 34 percent from the floor. The Sycamores won by 14, and the sleeves went back in the closet, and haven't been back since. A symbol is just a symbol, and a uniform is just a uniform; the hat doesn't make the cowboy. Doug Collins and Will Robinson... two men from completely different backgrounds combined to change the culture of Division I basketball. Collins, an Illinois State All-American and the school's all-time scoring leader, helped put the Redbirds on the collegiate map. Will Robinson ignored stereotypes to become the first African-American head coach in college basketball. These two men laid the groundwork for a powerful program; Illinois State has enjoyed a tremendous run of success over the years, thanks to head coaches like Bob Donewald, Bob Bender and Kevin Stallings.
America is a country that tends to forget its second-place finishers; in its recent one-bid state, the Valley has fallen victim to that dynamic. Take the Redbirds of 2008 and 2009, for instance; in both cases, Illinois State was 40 minutes away from erasing a decade of absence from the Big Dance. Two years ago, Illinois State was simply the team in destiny's path as Drake destroyed the Birds in the MVC title game, as well as any at-large hopes they harbored. And it looked like the script would repeat when Illinois State scored just 19 points against Northern Iowa in the 2009 version. That was before Osiris Eldridge, scoreless in the first half, took matters into his own hands. He hit shot after shot in a 21-point performance that stunned and thrilled a 9,000-strong crowd, as well as a national CBS audience. The Redbirds forced overtime.
When I'm at a title game, I always storm the floor with the winning team -- for journalistic purposes only, of course. But in a game that's going down to the wire on a neutral court, it's difficult to choose which side of the floor to stand on. As the overtime period unwound, Illinois State took control, leading for the majority of the extra frame. With 25 seconds to go, Illinois State was up 57-56. I did the possession math in my head, and ran over to where the Redbird band was standing and screaming their lungs out. But as it turned out, their team would not score again. It's a tale of two legends. Everyone knows the story of Larry Legend, the hick from French Lick. Larry Bird guided the Indiana State Sycamores to the 1979 NCAA national championship game versus Magic Johnson and Michigan State. But few remember that John Wooden began his collegiate coaching career at Indiana State during the 1946-47 season. He turned racial injustice into triumph by turning down a bid to the previous year's NAIB Tournament, due to its policy of excluding African-American players. A year later, African-American players were allowed to participate; Coach Wooden took the Sycamores all the way to Kansas City, to the NAIB title game.
Indiana State was the last Valley school I needed to make a full circuit. I finally got there in late 2008, when the Sycamores played a December non-conference contest against Arkansas-Little Rock. The roads in Terre Haute were covered with black ice, there were cars in ditches everywhere around the outskirts of town, and sections of Route 41 was closed with orange and black "Road Closed" signs. That didn't stop me, because it didn't stop the game. I walked around a nearly empty Hulman Center before the game, watching warmups, looking up at all the banners and talking to the concession workers. Out on the concourse, I stumbled upon a small display of memorabilia, celebrating the career of the player I idolized when I grew up.
Indiana State's shrine to the great Larry Bird is a humble one, just a few pictures and trophies and cut nets. No gold-embossed banners, or explanatory text panels, or anything else that would indicate why this was so important. If you know, you know... and if you don't, somebody older will surely tell you. It's much different than the detailed, over-the-top displays back in Boston, or at the Hall of Fame, or at the Indiana Basketball Museum. But it's fitting, because this is where he started; these were the humble beginnings that launched the career of the most important player in mid-major basketball history.Back when it was Southwest Missouri State, the Missouri State Bears were an NAIA powerhouse in the Fifties turned Division II juggernaut in the Sixties. In the Eighties, the school made the move to Division I, spearheaded by colorful, quote-laden Ozark philosopher Charlie Spoonhour. Spoonhour turned the Hammons Student Center into "Spoon's Temple of Doom," with Division I tournament apperances in 1987 (including a first-round win over Clemson), 1988, 1990 and 1992. Steve Alford picked up Spoon's torch in the late 1990s, leading the Bears to the Sweet Sixteen in 1999.
I'm still getting to know the new JQH Arena and its modern conveniences, the first of the new wave of valley arenas. I visited in its very early days, not so way back in November 2008. But most of my memories of Missouri State are from the old Hammons Student Center, the old Temple of Doom and its labyrinth of hallways and passages. It was always so difficult to get from any one place to another, but each journey was always charming and unexpected. Like the time in 2006 when former head coach Barry Hinson took me from the press room -- where he railed against anyone who said that the Valley deserved any fewer than four bids -- to the far stands. He introduced me to the student section. "Be nice to Kyle," Coach Hinson told them. "He's an ambassador from the outside."
The next time I saw him was two years later, in the midst of a season that kept sliding backwards. He still seemed shattered and sad from the heartbreak of finishing 22-9 with an RPI of 21, and being relegated to an NIT berth instead of the NCAA bid that had always eluded him at SMS/Mo-State. His eyes were bloodshot and his lids sagged, and he could feel the axe coming. A month later, right after the season ended, it fell. To me, he stands as one of the tragic figures in Valley coaching history, along with Indiana State's Bill Hodges
... men who came tantalizingly close to greatness, and fell just short.How purple is the Cedar Valley? Norm Stewart served at Northern Iowa for seven seasons as its first head coach position before taking over at his alma mater, Missouri, in the Sixties. In the first round of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, Maurice Newby drained a 3-pointer as time expired to lift Coach Stewart and 14th-seeded UNI past third-seed Mizzou. In numerous circles, that shot is credited with landing UNI in the Missouri Valley Conference the very next year. Since that time, UNI alum Greg McDermott guided the Panthers to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, from 2004 to 2006.
In February of 2006, I flew into Iowa for the Panthers' BracketBuster classic against Bucknell at the UNI-Dome. I picked up a mnemonic device that would help me with Valley geography: Cedar Rapids
is where you fly in and out of, and Cedar Falls
is where the shots go down on the basketball court. And they're a long hour's drive away from each other. When I got off the plane late that Friday night, I experienced a level of cold that I had never felt before, and I haven't since either. The temperature was minus-20 Fahrenheit, and that didn't take into account the harsh winds that made the conditions as Arctic as any parallel starting with a 4 could ever experience.
Lucky for me, Ron Smith from the UNI staff was there to pick me up and take me to Cedar Falls. Ron didn't mind the cold at all, it seemed, but while my face thawed out, he told me stories of the Valley. He was a walking encyclopedia who had seen the conference from three perspectives: as a student at Illinois State, a coaching staffer at Southern Illinois, and a longtime assistant at UNI. He told me about Chris Carr's days at SIU during the rise of the Salukis, about the emergence of UNI as a Valley power, all things he had witnessed first-hand. "The Valley always rewards the people who love it," he told me as he dropped me off at the hotel. I've never forgotten that. Carbondale, Illinois is a tight-knit rural community that truly embraces its sports heroes. Walt Frazier was nicknamed "Clyde" by Southern Illinois sports information director Fred Huff, due to Frazier's flamboyant style (and with the release of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde.") Frazier and head coach Jack Hartman guided the Salukis to the 1967 National Invitation Tournament title. Since that time, SIU has become "Floorburn U" because of its tough, tenacious defense. The Salukis have had their share of great players recruited from in-region and Midwest metro areas (Mike Glenn, Darren Brooks, Kent Williams, Jamaal Tatum), as well as many great coaches (Rich Herrin, Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and Chris Lowery). There have been plenty of great moments... including NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearances in 2002 and 2007.
There was an ill-fated book project in 2008 that was supposed to document and chronicle a new era of SIU basketball, but all that would have captured would have been the beginning of a slight downturn in the program's fortunes, perhaps just a hiccup after an extended run of excellence. I prefer to remember the 2007 campaign, when I followed the Salukis to Columbus, Ohio for the first rounds of the Big Dance. That was the most recent Saluki squad to feature the type of defense that the school's been known for, keeping opposing teams squarely in the Fifties, winning 29 games and dispatching Holy Cross and Virginia Tech as a No. 4 NCAA seed on the way to the Sweet 16. But that's not what they called it.
"We're makin' it the Mean 16!" yelled Jamaal Tatum in the tunnels after the final win of his college career. Hard to imagine that it was the end of an era of sorts, a celebration before a difficult era. Improved recruiting brought better talent, but players less willing to skin their knees in the name of Floorburn U. Here's hoping that the program can recapture its old identity; the entire Valley will be better for having that extra meanness back.Wichita State is a public university with a private-school feel and a beautiful campus. The Air Capitol is known for its place in aviation history, but the Shockers have had their share of high-flying players who rise above the rim. Shockers such as former NBA stars Dave Stallworth, Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston and Xavier McDaniel made their mark at Charles Koch Arena... a building known as the Roundhouse. With nearly 300 consecutive sold out crowds of 10,000-plus and a rabid fan base, "Loud-house" would be the appropriate nickname. Decibel levels rise off the chart during home games at the restored arena, capturing the romance and pride of the Roundhouse's glory days past.
My first taste of the Roundhouse came in early 2008. I drove down the toll road from the north and happened upon slumbering Wichita, covered in a thick sheet of snow on a New Year's Day night. It took a few extra minutes to get to the Charles Koch Arena due to the weather conditions; I found a space on a remote lot, and walked a quiet half-mile to the gate. "Where is everybody?" I thought. When I entered the building, I got my answer.
There were 17 minutes to go in the first half of the Shockers' game against Illinois State, and the place was filled to capacity. Everybody was standing in front of their seats, wearing yellow, and the contrast between the quiet outside and the ear-splitting noise inside was, well, a shock. Being in the Roundhouse during a game is what it must be like inside a stovetop popcorn kettle. The sound isn't like the dull static roar of the Palestra or the bass hum of Madison Square Garden; it's like a Bombardier Learjet starting up right in your face, one that doesn't take off for two whole hours. Even though more people fit inside, Creighton's arena can't match the decibel level found in that old pressure cooker in Wichita. No arena, anywhere, can.
I'm years away from truly understanding the Valley, like those who live, love and die here do. But game by game, season by season, city by town and college by university, I'm slowly learning. I figure it'll take my entire life to get there.