New D-1 Conference Calls It Quits

By Staff

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003,

It sounded like a good idea for universities that showcase NCAA Division I baseball but have no league of their own. The USA Baseball Conference would offer a conference schedule, weekly and seasonal player awards, and hopes of one day earning an automatic bid for its champion into the NCAA tournament.

Several schools joined the talks. They even discussed hosting a type of postseason invitational baseball tournament in the Chicago area. It looked like a go.

But then some harsh realities set in. The biggest was geography: The conference would have extended from the New York Institute of Technology and nearby Pace University in the east to Hawai'i-Hilo in the west. Though careful travel planning, creative scheduling, and a coordinated spring break had been cited as ways around the geographic sprawl, the travel requirements began to seem unwieldy.

"Baseball coaches were strong on it, and athletic directors thought it was a good idea," says would-be Commissioner Dave Schmidt, head of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, formed in 2001 for very small, independent colleges." But when it got up to the presidents they said, "We don't want to send our teams any farther than we have to in non-revenue sports."

The idea for the conference sprouted in the spring of 2002 as a way to help schools that recently moved to Division I or play in Division I in baseball only. Without a conference affiliation, these teams had little realistic hope of making the postseason anytime soon. Schmidt contacted them last year, sensed some interest, and began pursuing plans.

Athletic directors and coaches saw the league as a chance for a conference championship and a way to raise their RPIs for a shot at the NCAA tournament. Down the road, an automatic bid or play-in opportunity was the big draw. Plus, warm-weather destinations would ease recruiting for snow-belt members.

By late winter, though, it became clear that the idea had lost much of its appeal. Several potential members who were moving all their sports to Division I decided, instead, to focus on joining all-sports conferences closer to home. And the NCAA was giving signals that it would be reluctant to certify the league as a conference if most of the schools were in Division II with a Division I baseball schedule.

Mark Pope, Athletics Director at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, which is in the initial stages of entering Division I, was originally skeptical about the geographic spread of the proposed conference, but he gave the IPFW baseball coach the go-ahead to enter the talks as a way of providing weekly awards and a championship to work toward. Now, coaches and university administrators are making contacts with their counterparts in the Mid-Continent and Horizon conferences in hopes of joining a league for all 16 of IPFW's sports. "That's been my number-one goal this year," Pope says.

But it takes time to get a newly elevated program—IPFW was certified by the NCAA as Division I only last fall—into a conference. “One of the things that conference schools will look at from a new division member is whether they have staying power,” he says. “Being a Division I member is not an inexpensive proposition.”

Meanwhile, Pope says, IPFW coaches have been able to assemble reasonable schedules. “I believe it’s disingenuous to say the kids are not playing for anything,” he says. “Clearly one of the best ways to get into a conference is to have teams that win, to get our RPIs up. We’ve got time to make this work.”