PantherU

Nothing makes sense anymore: Part One

Today, the Horizon League welcomed Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis into the conference. It was a repeat of history, when the conference made the foolish addition of Youngstown State University after being rebuffed by Valparaiso, whose athletic director was the father of the Mid-Continent Conference commissioner and not willing to make a move that would have such a negative effect on his son’s career.

There’s no nepotism involved in the Horizon League’s summer of 2017; just incompetence. They’ve added a program that has only one obvious benefit to the conference: geography. The school is located in the conference office’s home town, just two miles down the road. When Valpo left the conference, the state of Indiana was left without a member in the conference. Perhaps this move was about justifying the Horizon League’s continued presence in Indy. With Oakland and Detroit just 20 miles from each other and the conference tournament in town, every year brought more calls from fans for the Horizon League to move the league office to Detroit. This move ends that, while also giving UIC a travel partner.

Besides geography, the $53 million renovation of the Indiana Farmers Coliseum gave IUPUI a far better facility than their on-campus gym. Unfortunately, after averaging 1,527 fans in their first season in the building (2014-15), they have since dropped attendance, sitting at just over 1,000 fans per home game.

The Jaguars last won the Summit League Title when it was still the Mid-Con, in 2006. That regular season title didn’t propel them to the NCAA Tournament, where they made their only appearance in 2003. Those two championships remain the best parts of their resume, but both happened under previous head coach Ron Hunter.

Against Horizon League schools, the Jaguars are 1-2 against Milwaukee, 2-1 against Green Bay, 2-0 against Cleveland State, 0-1 against UIC, 1-5 against YSU (yeah Guins!) and 13-19 against Oakland, their old rival in the Mid-Con. IUPUI has not played NKU, Wright State or Detroit.

For sports, the move makes a lot more sense for the Jaguars than it does for the Horizon League. The conference sponsors every sport IUPUI plays, which wasn’t the case for the candidate school with the far better basketball program, Robert Morris. However, the Jaguars don’t play baseball, which is at the minimum of six teams in the Horizon League and on the verge of losing their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament if they lose another team.

In the 2015-16 reporting year, IUPUI would have ranked 9th out of the 10 current Horizon League schools in men’s basketball spending. The Jaguars spent $1.56 million that year, comfortably ahead of YSU’s $1.35 million but behind the rest of the league, including then-provisional member NKU and cash-strapped Green Bay. Both of those schools have succeeded despite their low budgets, so it’s not a guarantee that IUPUI will fail in the conference.

Their men’s basketball operating expenses that year ranked 7th in the new conference, and their recruiting expenses for all male sports actually ranked 5th out of the new 10 teams.

Just by joining the conference, the Jaguars already hold one title, that of the largest enrollment in the Horizon League. With over 30,000 students, IUPUI passes up UIC (~29k) and Milwaukee (~28k). According to Wikipedia, the university has an endowment of $601 million Рa really nice chunk of change. They are an R2 institution, holding the second-highest designation for research activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

By the university’s profile, IUPUI is a perfect fit. As an urban public research institution, their addition opens up potential collaborations with R1 research schools Milwaukee and UIC, fellow R2 Cleveland State, and R3 campuses at Oakland and Wright State. It’s an exciting possibility for all involved to consider creating an academic coalition similar to the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Still, we’re talking about an athletics program. The Horizon League isn’t an academic alliance, but an athletic one. In that respect, this move is a disaster for a conference that is trying to salvage national relevance as a strong mid-major conference. The men’s basketball program (and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s what matters here) has not had a winning season since Ron Hunter departed for Georgia State in 2011. While Jason Gardner has increased his win total in each of his three seasons, going from 10 to 14 in three years isn’t exactly a rousing endorsement for the program.

The fact that it was unanimously approved by the Horizon League’s Executive Council proves just how detached the conference’s chancellors and presidents are from the heartbeat of their fan bases. Without fail, every single Horizon League fan who has commented on the opening left by Valpo has pushed for the conference to add a team that raises the basketball profile of the conference.

Unfortunately, there was no Valpo waiting in the wings. Even worse, there were plenty of programs that were not only better candidates, but better fits for the conference. Robert Morris, which also lacks a baseball program, has an infinitely better basketball program that is putting the finishing touches on a brand new basketball arena with a smaller capacity more fit for the new Horizon League (~4k). Fort Wayne has won 100 games in the last five years, nearly doubled IUPUI in attendance this year, is the only Division I program in a growing city of 264,000, and actually plays baseball – the program the Horizon League desperately needs. Both schools fit the conference’s footprint, and Fort Wayne is the closest university to the geographic center of the conference – almost 50 miles closer to each Horizon League school on average than IUPUI.

On our campus, we’re used to our leadership making boneheaded moves that hurt the future of the program. Athletic director Amanda Braun – yeah, I was gonna get around to her eventually – failed miserably yet again. Either she supported the addition of IUPUI, and she remains completely ignorant to the wishes of her Panther community, or she didn’t support the addition of IUPUI, and she couldn’t convince Chancellor Mark Mone to vote against adding a wholly inferior program that will drag down the conference’s profile.

 

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