A few months ago I spent entirely too much time begging NDSU to revisit the realignment question after Gene Taylor’s initial plans in the early 2000s to double jump from D2 into a D1 BCS school and push NDSU into the WAC were dashed by closed minded administrative officials. Just as an aside here I’ve probably been too hard on AD Taylor in this issue, but I’m really curious as to why we haven’t been able to push this question back to the surface ever since that initial failing. It becomes even more frustrating that we COMPLETELY missed a window to take advantage of the utter chaos of the 2011/12 realignment frenzy. Scores of teams switched conferences and NDSU brand was as ascendant as it has EVER been. And I doubt any conference is going to reach out to NDSU but I can’t believe they wouldn’t kick the tires on the issue if NDSU came to them first. As I mentioned in those other articles, Bison Athletics are now truly at their all time high. Three consecutive FCS Football championships, Summit conference regular season and tournament champions and the school’s first win in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, the school is on a precipice with a coaching change and loss of key seniors in football and even though it looks like we dodged the Marquette bullet with Saul Phillips, we’re still replacing 6 seniors on the basketball team as well. This obviously makes NDSU less attractive to new conferences in terms of what can immediately happen, but NDSU not only has a burgeoning support network in Fargo and the state of North Dakota, but they now have a major national brand! Now, I’m obviously not trying to say they’re Alabama or Duke, but people are really aware of NDSU and national fans would be more than happy to jump on the bandwagon of any North Dakota time on the national stage if only for the comedy of rooter for a team from Nōrth Dakōta. We hosted College Game Day this year! This is definitely an opportunity for us to operate from a position of strength!
In any event, our stock is as high as its ever been and its going to dip once next year starts. So right now seems to me like the time Gene Taylor should sell hard on his program, hop into a new conference, then take the next couple years to rebuild to even bigger and better heights since we’ll have elevated the program even further. All we need is an opportunity. And last week it looks like a chance (albeit probably a longshot) may have fallen down to us. On Wednesday the 26th it was announced that the MAC has kicked UMass out as a football only member, effective 2015. UMass rejected an offer to become a full member because their basketball team currently plays in a much better basketball conference, the Atlantic 10, and to be honest this is probably the right move for UMass considering the stature of their basketball program and relative irrelevance of their football program. From NDSU’s perspective I think the MAC is the most realistic conference for NDSU to join and most beneficial for both parties.
Geographically NDSU would only need to travel to many of the same regions that they currently travel in the Summit, and culturally both conferences are located in the upper Midwest. Moreover, the MAC is a relatively stable conference and would be a great longterm home for NDSU. NDSU would likely not be able to join until 2015 when UMass officially left, but that would simply give the school a chance to stabilize, even begin recruiting and fundraising under the higher profile banner. I don’t think the Bison could come in and win the conference in any of the major sports immediately, but they would easily be middle of the pack with a chance to upset some teams and rise to the top in relatively short order. The one hitch, however, is that NDSU likely cannot and in my opinion should not make this move alone.
If we arbitrarily set Bowling Green University in Ohio as the geographic center of this conference, it takes about 15 hours by car to reach this center-point. From Boston its actually only 12 hours. So even though UMass never really fit with the Midwestern feel of the conference, they were actually a tighter geographic fit. Moreover, they had Buffalo in upstate New York has a backyard neighbor to allow other teams to make one road trip into 2 and ease the travel burden the same way NDSU has done with the 2 South Dakota Schools ever since going D-1. Moreover, the South Dakota schools have been loyal and integral partners in all the success NDSU has been able to achieve. In my opinion SDSU has honestly matched almost everything NDSU has done. Obviously we have the titles and the NCAA tourney win, but SDSU has made themselves into a D1-AA football stalwart and until this year noone could deny that their basketball program had the superior pedigree (they had their 2 berths before us, and clearly have had the best player during this stretch, Nate Wolters, of either school). USD has admittedly struggled, but to be honest that makes me want to stay loyal to them even more.
I can’t really imagine abandoning these two schools, especially the struggling one, when they have been every bit as important in NDSU’s rise as our own Athletic Department, players, or fans have been. No conference would want NDSU without a traveling partner. North Dakota is just too distant and too complicated to travel to in isolation. That sounds like a ridiculous statement with the way modern travel works, but most athletic departments don’t fly their teams everywhere, and simply don’t want to add the extra burden of heading to the American hinterland. Leaving these loyal partners behind not only makes us jerks, it would destabilize our program and make us a less attractive partner for potential suitors. The make will not, and probably should not accept NDSU alone as an expansion partner.
And there in lies the biggest obstacle to this potentially (green and) golden opportunity. The MAC currently sits at 13 members including UMass. The other 12 members are already full members. UMass is only even in this conference for the name recognition they bring in from their basketball pedigree which is why the conference is cutting ties now that the Minutemen have refused to bring that basketball program under their umbrella. It is incredibly sensible, and plausible, to believe that the MAC will simply stand pat at 12 members once UMass leaves. They can simply chalk it up to a failed PR ploy and make their conference a more logical 12 member institution with 6 members in each division.
Personally I preferred the old 10-12 team conference models of the pre-expansion and realignment days, and the new 14-16 member monsters which are rearing their heads seem bloated and detrimental to me (you will simply force 4-6 schools to be perpetual bottom feeders to pad the wins of your middle and top tier). So to me it would make sense for the MAC to just hold pat at 12 rather than expand to another awkward 13 (with NDSU) a bloated 14 (NDSU and SDSU) or a bloated AND awkward 15 (if USD got to join the mix). The 15 option is absurd and they would never do that. The 14 would actually set the MAC up with some nice cushion in case a bigger conference came sniffing for any of their members in another round of expansion in the future, but they would probably need to lose another member before we could get all 3 Dakota schools in. I think there is a future here somewhere between these 3 schools and this conference. But maybe I’m just wishfully thinking. I just hope that Gene Taylor, who is honestly more proactive then I probably give him credit for, is already out there making inqueries and trying to sell his program now, when its at its height, so that even if a perfect opportunity isn’t available NOW, then NDSU can be on the minds of these Conference Commissioners’ minds when an even better opportunity pops up. And Commissioner Steinbrecher, if you’re listening, I just wanted to let you know that you have fabulous hair.