Drake needs to step up, now that the Valley has a void…
The departure of Wichita State left the Missouri Valley Conference with two voids to fill.
One is the glaring gap in the roster of schools and the need to find a tenth member, if not more. The other is more subtle. It’s the lack of a bellwether school supported by a community and media market that can offer the Valley some clout – relatively speaking.
That’s where Drake comes in.
When the America Athletic Conference voted unanimously Friday to invite the Shockers, national pundits began tossing out potential replacements: Valparaiso, Murray State, UMKC, the Dakota schools and others.
For what it’s worth, I’d push the league to 12 teams, create two divisions and get basketball and football more in sync.
Valley commissioner Doug Elgin has not commented publicly on the matter, but officials are meeting Sunday in Saint Louis.
You’d like to think they’ve been working the phones for months and already have a plan in place, and this weekend’s gathering is devoted to moving forward with that plan.
Regardless of what they decide, it’s time for Drake to step up as a leader.
University president Marty Martin loves college basketball, and his school is in a unique position for the Valley. The Bulldogs play in a metro area of 611,549 and growing, and unlike Loyola of Chicago, UMKC or Valpo, Drake could be front and center on the local sports scene.
Remember 2008, when the Knapp Center started to be packed on a nightly basis?
With all due respect to Porter Moser, nobody in Chicago cares about the Ramblers. The ‘Roos are a novelty in Kansas City.
But people in Des Moines – even those who are not Drake alums, but fans wanting a winter diversion – are begging and pleading for a consistently competitive basketball program.
And the Valley needs a boost, now that Creighton (and Omaha’s population base of 915,312) and Wichita State (644,610) have bolted.
Drake can no longer languish in the shadows while the landscape of college athletics continues to shift.
If the Bulldogs are not serious about winning (and I’m taking about the people outside of athletic administrators, coaches and players), then end the charade and apply for membership to the Iowa Conference.
With the Shockers out of the picture, Northern Iowa is the Valley’s top program, with seven NCAA Tournament appearances the past 14 years.
The Panthers produced one of the league’s proudest moments by beating top-ranked Kansas in 2010 and reaching the Sweet 16.
But there is only 170,612 people in the Cedar Valley, and the average home crowd last season was 4,536.
Attendance figures can be toyed with, but the Drake women averaged nearly 3,000 on their way to winning the Valley title.
Athletic director Sandy Hatfield Clubb spearheaded facility upgrades such as the new indoor practice facility, and new coach Niko Medved will bring a renewed optimism.
But the Bulldogs need more.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception that many people behind the scenes at Drake are okay with half-assed results in athletics, as long as academic integrity is upheld.
That’s understandable and honorable. Every school should operate with such high standards. But you have to win, too, now more than ever.
College sports is cutthroat, and Wichita State was looking after its own self-interests when it joined the AAC.
It’s in the best interests of Drake and the Valley for the Bulldogs to be a relevant force on the court.