*Pardon me while I live out a fantasy of mine. Being the new commissioner of the new... North Central Conference. All the following stuff is sadly probably not quite realistic... but one can dream.*
When I found out the Summit League was falling apart I was quite excited. The Summit League had a great history in the Midwest, but lately it has been struggling to maintain an identity as schools come and go. With the losses of Chicago State, Valparaiso, Centenary, Oral Roberts, and Southern Utah, and rumors swirling about some of the other members I knew it was a time to take a look at restarting the North Central Conference. The Summit League used to be based around the Great Lakes region mostly, but was now down to just four teams in states touching Lake Michigan (IUPUI, Fort Wayne, Oakland, and Western Illinois
). All of the new teams in the league had been further west, including Denver. The I-29 corridor in particular has become a pipeline in the Summit with South Dakota State, South Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, and Kansas City all located along the path it winds across the plains. With those things in mind we decided it's time to make a major move on those teams.
Today we are excited to add six schools from the Summit League. IUPUI, Fort Wayne, Oakland, and Western Illinois have seen the league move west and the time has come for them to move in other directions. All of the schools feel they can find better opportunities in other conferences and are pursuing opportunities in leagues like the Horizon League and the Ohio Valley Conference. They will be better served by playing opponents in their region than traveling across the plains. This left the other six schools I mentioned earlier looking for a new home, and we have provided them one. In addition to these six we are adding four other schools.
The first school is an in-state rival of one our most prominent members. Yes, North Dakota. North Dakota is a fantastic addition to our conference and was a strong national program at the Division II level. They never have fit well in the Big Sky conference and will fit nicely into our I-29 corridor at the northern end.
The next school we are adding is another in-state competitor, Northern Colorado. Northern Colorado is located in beautiful Greeley, Colorado and was the next furthest east of the Big Sky members. Their road trips will be much easier and they will now have a conference rival in Denver just down the road,
Finally we are adding two schools that are excited to move into the Division I era, Augustana of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Minnesota State-Mankato. Both of these schools have opportunities to establish themselves regionally in Division I. Augustana benefits from being the main school in the largest city in South Dakota while Minnesota State-Mankato will be only the 2nd Division I team in the state.
Those who may have some knowledge of the Division II past will recognize that we now have put together eight of the ten teams from the former North Central Conference. These bridges to the past will allow our league to move into the future with great established rivalries and universities
that want to be together. These institutions have risen into Division I together and are excited to continue their rise in a conference together. They have historical ties that will help us work through issues that develop overtime and give us a trust that most smaller conferences can't enjoy. Our conference represents 19 of the final 20 NCC men's basketball champions, these institutions have been battling on the court for decades.
The league name will of course be the North Central Conference to honor the legacy and heritage these schools have. Nationally I don't imagine this conference will draw much attention right away. There are some great programs in this conference, but the national pull is not there, yet. Regionally though we expect to do quite well as many of the major colleges in this area are now under our one roof. We look forward to finding ways to distribute our games to cities throughout the league.
Travel concerns are a major scare in Division I athletics and we have ensured that is not a concern in our league. Kansas City is only 10 hours away from its two farthest opponents (Northern Colorado and North Dakota). The farthest trip is Denver to North Dakota at 14 hours. While those trips may seem crazy to some east-coast people, here in the Midwest we don't have a lot of choices with so few schools in Division I. And it's certainly no San Diego State-Connecticut in the Big East...
I know I'm looking forward to seeing North Dakota-North Dakota State become a conference matchup again and seeing South Dakota-South Dakota State continue to grow. We believe Omaha-Kansas City is a rivalry to watch in the future and that the annual trophy awarded to the winner of the Royal Series will spark interest in their matchups in all sports throughout the year. Finally we anticipate that Northern Colorado and Denver will find that having a conference rival right down the road will bring added fan interest as the conference develops a stronger footprint in an area with many other competing sporting interests.
The future of the North Central Conference is bright. What once was a top Division II conference is going to be a great Division I conference. We have our sights set on the Missouri Valley and becoming the premier mid-major conference in the mid-west. We will be able to measure ourselves directly thanks to the new MVC-NCC Challenge. We will be a young conference, only two of our members have been in Division I for ten+ years, but we feel that as our schools grow into Division I they will be able to compete at a similar level to where they did in Division II.
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