What's a mid-major? What isn't? Have you had enough of this crap? Yeah, we have too, since Season 3 or so. It's an impossible discussion to have, especially when one-third of the people in the debate think it's a snapshot measure of basketball quality, another third insist it's about intangibles like "legacy" or "expectations," and others believe that finances and your conference home define who you are
. It's a circular argument that's guaranteed to never end, because arguments about terminology and perception never do. In other news: this is not a pipe
, it's a painting of one.
Schools like North Carolina, Duke, UCLA and even Kansas State -- whom the Musketeers will play on Thursday night in the Sweet 16 -- field big-time programs. Everybody agrees on that. They spend tens of millions on sports every year (in some cases, over $100 million!), and they have to... because they play in super-conferences where they have to spend big money in order to stay competitive. But Xavier lies in that grey area in between huge and little, and that's why there's always considerable confusion out there about what they really are.
Some time has passed since Xavier was an unquestionably small-time program. As Queen City media staple Paul Daugherty recently noted
, it's been a generation since X shared the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) with Evansville, Butler and Loyola-Chicago. And everybody knows how to pronounce the name now ("z," not "eggs"), because it's been pounded into the heads of college basketball fans across the country every March. Ten years ago, the public address announcer at the conference tourney at Philadelphia's Spectrum was still getting it wrong. Nobody does these days.
Xavier's athletic budget is just under $13 million, less
than that of such schools as Delaware State, Furman, William & Mary and Dartmouth. Xavier has sixteen intercollegiate sports, none of which are American-Style Football (it dropped the program in 1973 because it was losing the school $200,000 per annum
). Over the following 20 years -- and this is the genius part -- Xavier made a major push towards building one of the best men's basketball programs in the country.
Of those overall athletic expenses, nearly $4 million -- a full 30 percent of X's athletic expenses -- are now spent on men's basketball. That's the largest percentage of any school in Division I. (Similarly football-free Gonzaga spends 23 percent, by comparison.) At the turn of the century, a major fundraising campaign erected the Cintas Center, which seats 10,250, including 22 comfy luxury boxes. You can fit the university's entire undergraduate student population in this building... nearly three times. Xavier invested in private jets, threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into recruiting. It reserved over a million dollars a year for its men's basketball coach. Not enough to compete with the BCS robber barons, but plenty enough to develop top-class talent like Sean Miller, Thad Matta, the late Skip Prosser, and Pete Gillen
-- the man who led the transition up from the MCC to what was then the Atlantic 10. Gillen could be considered the architect of everything you see now on the court at Xavier.
In 15 years of play in the now-Atlantic 14, Xavier has gone to the NCAA Tournament 11 times. Only twice in that stretch have the Musketeers won fewer than 20 games (in the first year after moving in from the MCC, and a rebuilding year in 2005). Since the turn of the century, X has won 245 games overall, and 13 contests at the Big Dance. This, right here, is the school's third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance -- and despite losing their head coach (to the University of Arizona-Tucson) and two of their top three scorers last summer, the team turned in a virtual carbon copy of 2008-09 this season. These are all staggering accomplishments by any measure.
But Xavier has chosen the defensive route in the media, for reasons I've long struggled to fully understand. Does that look like a mid-major arena to you? Does it, does it?
Talk about finances, and they'll throw basketball numbers back at you. Every year, athletic director Mike Bobinski emerges to tell everybody how stupid they are for using the "M" word in connection with his program. School representatives, players, coaches and fans (and yes, users of The Form™
) spend a lot of time telling everybody what they aren't, instead of what they are. Why? I think the administration is made up of brilliant sports businessmen of the highest caliber, despite the poor public relations.
I believe Xavier has provided a perfect blueprint for the future of small-college athletics. Step one: drop football -- I know it's painful, and there's a lot of man-pride involved. Step two: spend a third of your athletic budget on men's basketball. As schools like Butler and have known for years, and as Saint Mary's and Northern Iowa are learning this week, there is no better form of advertising than being good at basketball. And for the cost of one 30-second Super Bowl ad in 2010
($3 million), a Sweet 16 school can have two weeks of national advertising. Hours upon hours on CBS and ESPN, feature stories in the New York Times
and Sports Illustrated
, endless chatter in restaurants and cafes. In a time of collapsing pyramids and bad money chasing after worse money, this is an investment that's too true to be good.
And this is what our mission has been about for the past six years -- trying to figure out how programs can distinguish themselves in this chaotic world of Division I hoops, how to establish quality and consistency at a high level. Xavier's cracked the code, and the ingredients are right there in front of us -- it should be considered an honor and a privilege that there's this confusion as to what they are. What I'd like to see in the next decade are "mid-major, or not?" debates about schools like Dartmouth and Furman and Delaware State. I want to see five schools from the Other 24 in the Sweet 16 every single damn year. Forget that, we want eight, and we want annual first-weekend bracket destruction and the extra at-large bids too. That would be progress, and that's why we're going to keep talking about Xavier.
Xavier plays big-time basketball at a small school, in a middle-sized conference. Is that really so difficult to understand?