The Summit League has three new members, a new name and a new logo. More importantly, commissioner Tom Douple believes the conference has a new direction.
North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne will officially join the conference on Sunday in the biggest addition to the membership since six teams joined in 1994. And while the league will say goodbye to Valparaiso, a charter member and one of its most recognizable faces, Douple sees a promising future for the former Mid-Continent Conference.
“We have a lot of schools that now want to join us to get in the league. We have a lot of people calling on us,” said Douple, who took over as commissioner in 2005. “I think the future looks very, very bright for us.”
Douple envisions the renamed conference becoming “one of the more competitive and premier mid-major conferences,” a niche role that’s been filled at the NCAA tournament the past few years by the Missouri Valley, Horizon and Colonial conferences and personified most famously by George Mason’s Final Four run last year.
But Douple understands there’s plenty of work to be done for his conference to emerge from near the bottom of the pack in RPI to earn more than its one automatic bid in postseason play each year.
That’s why teams in the league have been asked to sign on to The Summit Plan, aimed at improving graduation rates and academic success, home attendance and RPI which, in turn, means an increased commitment in athletic budgets for scholarships, recruiting and staff.
The conference’s Presidents Council agreed in principle to the plan this week, and the next step is for athletics directors and college presidents to submit improvement ideas for their individual schools.
“Some of our schools are doing a fantastic job in maybe one of any of those areas, and others are doing good here but maybe not in this particular area. … They’re taking internal looks, and the commitment’s there,” Douple said. “We’ve increased the scholarships in our core sports. I think it’s a statement from the presidents that we are going to improve.”
Douple said he wants to see the Elmhurst, Ill.-based league get into the top half of the NCAA’s 31 conferences in home attendance and RPI in the next five years.
“What we’ve done is solidified our membership, we changed our name and our logo, and we’ve also changed the commitment level,” Douple said. “That’s part of The Summit Plan. It’s given us a new image and perception, but also it’s given us a plan of commitment from the presidents. It’s very exciting.”
The conference was left with only seven committed teams last year after Chicago State became an independent and Valparaiso announced plans to join the Horizon League. Conferences must have eight teams to earn automatic NCAA tournament bids.
Western Illinois is the only remaining member from the league’s formation as the Association of Mid-Continent Universities in 1982. Other members are Centenary, Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis, Missouri-Kansas City, Oakland (Mich.), Southern Utah and Oral Roberts, which last season won nine conference titles, including those in men’s and women’s basketball and baseball.
“What we were looking for are good fits into our current membership, schools and communities that are committed to improving their athletic programs and their academic profiles,” Douple said. “We feel with the addition of those schools, it gets us to 10 right now and quite frankly we’re as strong as we’ve ever been.”
The Summit League announced this week that it would move its premier events, its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, to Sioux Falls, S.D. in 2009 and 2010. Tulsa, the home of Oral Roberts, has hosted the tournaments the past three years and will also have the 2008 events.
Douple called Sioux Falls “a huge college basketball area” that supports the sport at the NCAA Division I and II levels and the NAIA.
“There’s just a lot of interest in college basketball men and women in that region. By bringing it to Sioux Falls, we think we can create a regional event with a lot of interest,” Douple said.
Douple said the conference plans to stream all of its men’s and women’s basketball games online this year, and he hopes teams will soon be able to expand from local to regional television coverage. Beyond that, he hopes for additional coverage on national networks down the road.
“We’re making some strides and continue to. Are we there yet? Absolutely not, but we have a clear direction now,” Douple said. “We understand that we’re not going to be top 10 or BCS, but we certainly want to compete against all the rest day in and day out.”
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