Mid-Major Marauding with Gary Parrish

Tim SullivanContributor IOctober 5, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS - MARCH 22:  Cheerleaders for the Dayton Flyers runs by players from the Kansas Jayhawks during warm ups for their second round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on March 22, 2009 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

If you are like me, you have already reached the stage in your life when you realize that life isn't fair.  You shit your pants in second grade and spent the rest of your adolescent life being called "Shit Slacks?" Tough, that's life.  The only school you got an acceptance letter from was your "safety" school, a private Catholic-Marianist school located in Dayton, Ohio?  Well kid, them's the breaks.  You shit your pants again, this time during your freshman English class?  You should go see a doctor. Seriously.

In a sense, this point of your existence is both the best and worst period of your life.  Possibilities have been eliminated, opportunities no longer knock, and your fate has more or less been sealed.  On the plus side, disappointments have less impact, expectations are tempered, and the sweet kiss of death is just around the corner. Simply put, you know your place in the world, or at least you should, and there is a sense of comfort in that. 

Such is the life of a mid-major basketball program.  Big wins get characterized as flukes.  Losses get overly scrutinized. A mid-major's resume gets examined like a ballot with dimpled chads come March.  (Yes, I just made a chad reference ten years past its expiration date.  That's what mid-major bloggers do.) For a Dayton fan, winning twenty-six games last season and barely sneaking into the NCAA tournament affirmed UD's status by absolution.  The experience cemented the U. of D.'s status in the college basketball world.  That is to say,  the University of Dayton basketball Flyers are as mid-major as it gets. 

Pushing aside fatalistic proclivities, is there a way to change course?  Is there a practical manner in which to level the playing field?  According to CBS Sports writer Gary Parrish, the answer is a resounding no. Parrish's recent article, "Money--lack of--Proving Root of all Evil for Mid-Majors," addressed the growing chasm between the David and Goliaths of college basketball.  He argues that the BCS system in college football has fiscally trickled down to college basketball, giving the Big Six conferences a revenue source that mid-majors can only dream of.  The result?  The competitive balance between the BCS conferences and the rest of the pack is almost non-existent.  As a concerned fan and alum of a mid-major program, I took the opportunity to ask Parrish about the current situation.  What, if anything, can be done to alleviate the growing separation between the haves and have-nots?

TB: You made the case that the disparity between the “Big Six” conferences and everybody else is expanding exponentially.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that the majority of programs outside the BCS conferences cannot compete in terms of resources, exposure, finances, etc.  As a fan of a mid-major program this obviously concerns me.  How do you see the situation developing over the next 5-10 years?

GP: It'll get worse. And then worse. And then worse. The gap in resources is getting wider, as is the gap in television exposure. And I'm afraid there's no way to fix it. So while there will always be a Memphis and a Gonzaga and a Xavier battling with the big boys, the majority of non-BCS schools, in most years, would finish last in pretty much every BCS-affiliated league.

TB: Building on the prior question, let’s look at the current circumstances from a free market point of view.  Programs like Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, etc. have put the financial backing into their basketball programs, and have seen a favorable return on their investments.  It would make sense that those that make significant economic commitments to their basketball program are successful as a result.  Where is the injustice in that?

GP: The problem is that it's not that simple. I'm sure VCU would love to commit the resources to keep Jeff Capel from going to Oklahoma and Anthony Grant from going to Alabama, but they simply don't have the resources to commit. And it's not like OU and UA have those resources because of basketball. They get the money to buy VCU's coaches from revenue produced thanks to football, and, more specifically, from being in a BCS league. So that's the problem. If VCU was in the Big 12 or SEC, it wouldn't lose its basketball coaches to the Big 12 and SEC. The conference affiliation makes it difficult to compete. For proof, consider that Memphis and Xavier (perhaps the two best non-BCS programs) both lost their coaches this season, and they replaced them with assistants. Memphis -- coming off four Sweet 16s and with a  $250 million arena that is sold out every game -- couldn't get Baylor's coach, Tennessee's coach, USC's coach or Florida State's coach to leave the BCS. That should tell you something.

TB: It seems that the controversy surrounding the BCS system in college football gets erroneously tied to college basketball as well.  Mid-major teams like Dayton have the opportunity to play major conference teams, albeit usually on the road.  As far as the post-season is concerned, there is a playoff system in place to determine the eventual champion. It is clear that college basketball fans have far less to complain about than their football counterparts.  With that being said, what are some steps that could level the playing field even more?

GP: I would argue that the BCS doesn't "erroneously" get tied to college basketball; it "correctly" gets tied to basketball. I hate it, but the BCS has a huge influence on college basketball, and that was the point of my column. Most SEC basketball schools will be on national television this season more than Xavier or Dayton even though Xavier and Dayton will likely be better than most SEC schools. Why do you think that is? It's because of the TV contracts that the BCS leagues get based on football. Again, just look at Memphis. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in the country (and led by the future No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft) much of the season two years ago, but they weren't on national TV as much as a whole bunch of ACC and Big East programs. Again, that's very much because of the BCS. So it does play a huge role in basketball, and I'm not sure there's a way to fix it.

TB: One of the major problems facing successful mid-major programs is the attrition rate of their head coaches.  As you mentioned, mid-majors like Xavier, VCU, Nevada, and Memphis all lost their head coaches last spring.  Is the first step in gaining ground on the high-majors attempting to compensate coaches at a more competitive rate?

GP: Sure, but how? Look at the athletic budgets of BCS and non-BCS schools. It's stunningly divided. So the BCS schools, with few exceptions, have more money than the non-BCS schools, and that's always going to be the case. Beyond that, it's an exposure thing, and a facility thing. Remember, Nevada is a better basketball program than Georgia by most measuring sticks. But Mark Fox left Nevada for Georgia, and now he makes more money, has better facilities and will be on TV more often. How do you combat that?

TB: The argument can be made that the one advantage mid-majors have over the BCS conferences is stability.  Teams like Siena, George Mason, Butler, etc. have made inroads in the NCAA tournament with experienced squads that have been together for a few years.  You take a look at a program like Kentucky, which could lose as many as four underclassmen to next year’s draft, and the Wildcats could feasibly start at square one again next year (by reloading with another #1 class, but I digress).  Following this logic, could mid-majors catch up by simply staying the course and hoping the BCS conferences suffer a negative impact from underclassmen jumping ship?

GP: If that was going to happen, wouldn't it have happened by now? You show me a senior-laden team, and I'll show you a team that's not very talented, a team that'll get run off the court by John Calipari's freshmen. The Butlers and Sienas and George Masons can have good records, upset some people and maybe -- once every 20 years -- get to a Final Four. But it's rare. And I can't imagine one of them ever winning a national title again. Sadly, that's the truth. I don't like it. But that's the truth.

TB: What will happen first, a mid-major wins the National Championship or John Calipari reaches the Final Four and actually has it officially recognized by the NCAA?

GP: Calipari reaches the Final Four and it stays in the record books ... if only because it's hard to keep getting caught cheating. I mean, you don't get caught every time you run a stop sign or drive drunk because the odds of getting caught are slim. Same theory applies here. Plus, he's got that third-times-a-charm stuff working for him now, doesn't he?

TB: Take your best guess, how many mid-majors can realistically compete for at-large bids this season?

GP: Oh, I'm sure it'll be like most years. Maybe one from C-USA, two from the A-10, one from the MVC, two from the MWC, etc. I think Butler can get in and advance, and Siena clearly can too. But the numbers will be similar, I'd guess.

I agree with much of what Parrish maintains, as the majority of his article is irrefutably correct and factually accurate.  The BCS system has indirectly provided an obscene influx of cash into the coffers of "Big Six" basketball programs.  However, I would argue two points:

  1. The system has had a greater effect on the lower-tier BCS basketball programs (ones that do not place a premium on college basketball), such as the Georgias, Texas Techs, and Oregon States of the world, than the big conference power-houses.  Case in point, North Carolina, Duke and Kansas were major players before the BCS existed and would have remained so even without its current college football affiliation. 

    As this off-season has demonstrated, football money permits schools like Georgia, Alabama and Virginia the advantage to align itself with top-notch coaching talent regardless of how well its basketball team is supported.  This is where the real separation has occurred.  Although throwing money at the problem doesn't necessarily translate into immediate success, it certainly provides for an opportunity to make a faster turnaround.  Therefore, it would appear that the most significant consequence of the BCS would be the further financial separation from the lower-tiered majors and the better mid-major programs.

  2. The primary reason mid-majors basketball programs will not catch-up financially is the fact that they have less money to spend as a result of the financial support they must throw to other athletic programs.  A school like Alabama or Georgia can afford to pay their basketball coaches millions of dollars because their football programs make more than enough money to comfortably fund soccer, tennis, cross-country and softball teams.  Dayton's basketball team generated $8.7 million during the 2006-07 season, representing a little over 90% of the total amount the entire athletic program produced that year.  However, they were only able to reinvest a fraction of that amount back into basketball considering that the expenses of the other athletic programs had to be paid as well--and the basketball Flyers footed the bill.

    One proposal would be to simply allow for that $8.7 million, less expenses, to be earmarked for  direct investment back into the basketball program.  Whatever an athletic team generates after expenses, that is essentially it's operating budget for the subsequent year.  Therefore, schools like Alabama and Virginia couldn't use football money to pay the salaries and recruiting expenses of its college basketball coaches.  If each institution, regardless of conference membership, was limited to the money that each sport generated the playing field would be somewhat leveled.  Of course, this would mean that many of the athletic programs would cease to exist since their expenses would far outweigh their revenues (and I'm sure supporters of Title IX might have something to say about it).

    But hey, tough shit, that's life.