Like most things, it's usually about the money

Originally Published: March 24, 2006
By Kyle Whelliston | Special to ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- Shortly after deplaning at Baltimore-Washington International Airport early Tuesday morning, I dragged my bags onto the BWI rental car shuttle. It took me a few minutes to realize it, but I was the tallest person on the bus. By at least a foot.

I found myself in the company of the height-challenged. The shuttle's other passengers were representatives from the Dwarf Athletic Association of America, sporting black satin jackets and carrying canvas bags bearing their organization's red and blue spiral logo. I could tell by the intense looks on their faces that these DAAA dwarves meant business.

This wasn't a sleep-deprived hallucination or one of Tony Soprano's coma dreams, but it bore a direct parallel to what teams like UConn and Memphis and UCLA must have been feeling this past week. "Mid-major" shares its first three letters with that term adults five feet and under don't want to be called; with Bradley, Wichita State and George Mason in the Sweet 16, the traditional powers must have felt like they were surrounded by midg ... er, little people.

But now, the power conferences' five-day nightmare is finally over. After Friday's action, only one mid-major remains standing: George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association. The well-heeled elite once again hold the overwhelming major-majority that they're used to owning at this time of year, and barring an 11-over-1 Patriots victory over mighty UConn, teams from conferences like the Pac-10 and Big East will dominate the national conversation from here on out.

Before we march on to Indianapolis, however, let's pause to consider the lessons from The Year Of The Mid-Major. Smaller Division I schools are faced with challenges the big boys don't have to worry about -- issues like player recruiting, coach retention, TV coverage and non-conference scheduling. Has this season really changed anything for schools outside the top eight leagues?

Jai Lewis
AP Photo/David KohlJai Lewis (55) is the big man on George Mason's campus.

One thing that's not going to change any time soon is the massive gulf that separates the athletic budgets of the have-mores and the NCAA's lower classes. Using 2004-05 figures from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education, George Mason's budget for men's hoops was $1.02 million; Elite Eight opponent UConn spent more than 540 percent than that ($5.52 million) on its men's basketball operation over the same season. That's a gap similar in size to the one that separated the New York Yankees' 2005 payroll of $208 million from that of the 28th-ranked Pittsburgh Pirates ($38.1 million).

And while college basketball obviously will never adopt MLB-style free agency, the competition for blue-chip pre-college players usually comes down to who has the most money to chase them. For instance, Tennessee spent $1.2 million on recruiting for all men's sports (including football) in 2004-05, a figure that literally dwarfs Wichita State's $132,248 in spending during the same period (schools report their overall men's and women's recruiting budgets to the government, but aren't required to break them down by sport).

But Wichita State still found a way to win its 7-vs.-2 second-round battle last weekend. But according to the Shockers' head coach, one magical run for a team that made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1988 isn't enough to change a school's fortunes in recruiting's hotly contested meat market.

"One of my best friends in the whole world, [Gonzaga head coach] Mark Few, went to an Elite Eight, and it didn't change their recruiting," Mark Turgeon said on Thursday. "But then they followed it up with two Sweet 16s and became media darlings. ... It took those three years to change their recruiting. I hope this changes ours. I hope we get some stud that wants to play for us because we were in the Sweet 16, but we aren't anticipating that.

"We know we're not going to go down to Texas and beat some Big 12 school [to a prospect] just because we were in the Sweet 16 one time. ... I think it takes more than one year for that to happen."

Few's Bulldogs certainly are the poster children for success at this level. And even though their $122K recruiting budget is still on par with many mid-major schools, they have what Wichita State and George Mason don't have yet: invaluable name recognition that allows them to nab personnel that dominates their league and makes NCAA appearances year after year. For the many schools that wish to follow in the footsteps of Gonzaga, recruiting is still an exercise in patience and hope.

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)Kyle Wilson won't be around, but the Shockers will be hungry for a Sweet repeat.

"We play Iowa State and Iowa," recently hired Northern Iowa coach Ben S. Jacobson said. "At that level, they can recruit a better basketball player than we can get from the start. Maybe we can't compete head-to-head in a recruiting battle on the front side, but once players come through our program, maybe we can compete on the basketball court."

For all of last weekend's excitement over the Missouri Valley's two Sweet 16 berths, Monday brought some sobering news that reminded the league of its position in the conference food chain: Greg McDermott left Northern Iowa to take the head coaching position at Iowa State, a school with a $2.9 million basketball budget that offers more than double the financial flexibility as UNI's $1.2 million hoops coffer.

Jacobson's 17-year relationship with McDermott dates back to his playing days at North Dakota, where "Coach Mac" was serving as an assistant. He hopes that everything he's learned at McDermott's side for the past six years at both UND and UNI translates into a continuation of the Panthers' string of three consecutive 20-win seasons and accompanying NCAA trips.

"It's something we both knew was coming at some point," Jacobson said. "Obviously not knowing it would happen this fast or where Mac's next job might be. He and I have had conversations over the past year or two, and he's asked me what my professional goals were. He's known that I wanted to be a head coach."

But teams in conferences like the Missouri Valley are trying to find creative ways to try and retain their coaches; so Jacobson may find creative incentive to stay in Cedar Falls if a string of his own 20-win seasons makes him a hot commodity. On March 2, before McDermott decided to leave for Ames, his salary had been raised to $350,000 via private donations; the multimillion-dollar contract that Creighton's Dana Altman signed reportedly includes a lucrative annuity.

And it's not just coach retention that's a problem, it's holding on to the attention of college basketball fans before the NCAA Tournament starts. Great mid-major players like George Mason's Jai Lewis, Wichita State's Paul Wilson and Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant didn't appear from some magic cornfield after a spring thaw; you just didn't know about them before this month because they're not on your TV screens every night during the cold winter months.

The MVC is taking steps to change that -- this was the first year of an agreement with CBS to broadcast the Arch Madness conference title game live from St. Louis, and it's become one of only six leagues to broadcast its championship on over-the-air television. The league's commissioner is hoping that this year's Valley buzz will lead to more cross-country exposure.

"We've really broken the ice on getting national attention," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "I don't think they'll forget about this year like they've done in the past with [Sweet 16 participant Missouri State] in 1999 and Southern Illinois in 2002. The programs that have success this year are linked together by a common thread."

But while the largest TV market in the Missouri Valley's thread is No. 67 Wichita, Yeager's recently expanded CAA is represented in five of the top 10 markets in the United States: No. 1 New York (Hofstra), No. 4 Philadelphia (Drexel), No. 5 Boston (Northeastern), No. 8 Washington (George Mason) and No. 9 Atlanta (Georgia State).

"We consider ourselves a regional TV property," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "Our bread and butter, how we're going to survive is going to be our regional package. Our plan is very much to syndicate our games from New England to Atlanta, and our success this year has given us a lot of momentum towards that. That's how we can build a brand and an identity. ... If Northeastern's in second place, [its fan base will] have viewing interest in a VCU-Old Dominion game if [the Huskies are] a game or two behind either team."

One thing that will become instantly more difficult for schools like George Mason and Wichita State is nonconference scheduling. Power-conference coaches are loathe to schedule solid mid-majors, as the possible early-season loss might mean the difference between an NCAA invite and a NIT berth. Instead, they often choose to play "guarantee games" and pay smaller schools upwards of $50,000 to show up at their buildings and lose.

"If there's one downside of all the visibility we've gained this year, it's that more teams aren't going to play us," Yeager said. "The type of coach that buys games isn't going to call [George Mason coach] Jim Larranaga or Mark Turgeon. What we have to do is build from within and find innovative ways to schedule good opponents for our team."

And according to fellow commissioner Elgin, those plans are already in motion.

"We want to explore the opportunity to build upon the BracketBusters," he said. "Maybe create another event that would have high-end, contending teams in leagues like ours playing two opponents, one at home and one on the road, then see if CBS or ESPN or another major carrier wants to pick it up."

And when it comes to scheduling for the good of the conference RPI, Yeager believes in the team concept.

"If there are 12 guys on a team, you're not looking for every one to give 35 minutes and score 20 points," he said. "One of the things that we've been advancing is that teams should schedule at their level. If you're one of the top teams in the top 100, you shouldn't be bottom-feeding in the 300s. The ones that aren't up in that neighborhood, they should be scheduling to win. If your role on the team is to give the starter five minutes of rest, that's what we're looking for from our 12th-place team. It doesn't matter where the hell you get the games, just win them."

And as this season has shown, those wins translate to stronger ratings for the teams and conferences, which in turn leads to the gaudy numbers that ensures more NCAA Tournament bids. The wins by Valley and CAA teams in this year's NCAAs have shown that their impressive RPIs were no mathematical mirage, that these teams really do belong on the same court as the traditional powers.

The most remarkable (and mostly unreported) part of The Year of the Mid-Major, though, is that all of the success has been done in spite of the enormous financial disparities. When it comes down to it, the true beauty of March basketball is that any two teams and 40 minutes of play can produce results that transcend economics.

Wichita State's second round victory over Tennessee, on a pure-cash basis, was a victory for a school with a $12.1 million total athletic budget over one that had $71.5 million to spend. And when Mike McConathy's 14th-seeded Northwestern State Demons beat Iowa in this year's first round, the 9.5-to-1 basketball-budget disparity ($4.48 million to $0.47 million) far outstripped the 7-to-1 payroll gap between the 2005 Yankees and the MLB-low Tampa Bay Devil Rays ($29.3 million).

"Money can't buy you a Goliath," Elgin said. "It can't buy you an unbeatable team. You gotta have someone who can coach them, someone who can mold them into a unit. You can really equalize things with kids who grow up in a solid program, who become seniors. They have the opportunity to take advantage of the youth and inexperience of some of these major programs that might be playing them in the Tournament."

For Division I college basketball to truly realize its parity potential, it requires a strong Valley and a strong CAA. It also needs a stronger Mid-American Conference, Big West, Horizon League, West Coast and Sun Belt. Our game also desperately needs young leagues like the Northeast, Atlantic Sun and Big South to stop accepting roles as power-conference punching bags, and start coming up with their own ideas to level the playing field.

The only way to capitalize on The Year Of The Mid-Major is to create the Decade Of The Mid-Major. Perhaps then, someday, a lone power-conference representative will be riding that bus down the road to the Final Four, only to find that they're completely surrounded by college basketball's "little guys."

Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a daily contributor to ESPN.com.

Kyle Whelliston

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
Kyle Whelliston has contributed to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage since 2005. He covers mid-major programs for Basketball Times magazine, and will have a basketball travelogue of the 2008-09 season published next summer. Whelliston also founded midmajority.com and statistical database site Basketball State (bbstate.com).