As we prepare to head into the heat of the summer, the Summit League needs to be prepared for a different milestone: The possible dissolution of the league.
This may seem like overreaction, but after the news of the departure of Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis last week, the league and its presidents need to be proactive or it might be too late.
Since 2010, the conference has been in a constant state of flux. Six schools have left in those seven years: Centenary, Southern Utah, Oral Roberts, Missouri-Kansas City, Oakland (Mich.) and IUPUI. The league has added five members in that same time frame: Denver, South Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, Oral Roberts upon returning in 2014 and the University of North Dakota, which is joining the league in 2018.
The geography of the league has certainly become more Midwest-oriented, which has helped travel budgets and also boosted the league's reputation. Don't forget a couple years ago the men's basketball RPI was up to 12 among 33 Division I conferences.
Losing IUPUI though is noteworthy, because first it wasn't even mentioned in the discussions about expansion with the Horizon and Missouri Valley. That was Omaha and Fort Wayne. Second, with IUPUI leaving, now Fort Wayne is on an island on the eastern side of the conference. The Mastodons' closest trip will be Western Illinois in Macomb, Ill., which is a six-hour bus ride. That's not close.
Fort Wayne's athletic director said in an interview in Fort Wayne last week his school is "compelled to look at other options." Fort Wayne is within driving distance of nearly the entire Horizon League, outside of the Wisconsin schools and plus the Mastodons don't play football.
Here's the rub on Fort Wayne. Competitively, the Mastodons are not very good. Both the men and women finished last in the Commissioner's Cup standings, which ranks all of the teams based on performance. The men's basketball team won 20 games this past year and has been competitive in recent seasons, but is that enough of a selling point to the Horizon? The Summit League had better hope not, because if Fort Wayne leaves, then the league is in real trouble.
If Fort Wayne leaves, that would leave the Summit with just five baseball teams. The rub on that is the NCAA requires six teams in a conference to receive an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.
There is a two-year waiver (the Summit used that a few years ago when Oakland left) and would be needed again if Fort Wayne departs.
Who's out there? That's the question I get the most and I have asked the most. Here are three potential targets:
• UMKC: The former Summit member makes the most sense in my mind. The Kangaroos left for the WAC in 2013, but according to their athletic director "travel has been more challenging than we originally thought." With a conference spread out over three time zones, the money they are spending on travel alone should make them think about re-joining their old friends. It makes sense on the Summit side too, making for a good a travel partner with Omaha and having a major airports for direct flights. And the Kangaroos don't play football, which helps. The downside? They're not great in many sports.
• Grand Canyon University (Ariz.): This one is appealing to me-the Antelopes are entering their fifth year of Division I athletics this fall and have grabbed headlines with their rapid ascent in athletics. The men's basketball team is coached by former NBA All-Star Dan Majerle and won 22 games last season. The university is based in Phoenix, has a brand new baseball stadium on the way and would give the league a splash it badly needs, no matter how far it is. It is a "for-profit" university, which could scare away some old-fashioned presidents about it how goes about business.
• Augustana University: The D-II school in Sioux Falls, S.D., made some news last week when its athletic director told KWSN radio that the Vikings will have discussions about Division I. The problem for the Vikings is it doesn't help the Summit immediately. The five-year waiting period for Division I eligibility seems like it would take forever, and plus, what would you do with football? Does the Missouri Valley Football Conference open its doors? Would Augustana go the Pioneer Football League route and play non-scholarship football? How would South Dakota State and South Dakota feel about that?
There are a couple other schools that we have discussed in the past-Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville-but not sure those are real options.
One way or the other, Summit commissioner Tom Douple and the league presidents had better be on the phone. Because the league is teetering right now on stability and next year at this time, it could be in much worse shape.