“Look, mister, there’s ... two kinds of dumb, uh ... guy that gets naked and runs out in the snow and barks at the moon, and, uh, guy who does the same thing in my living room. First one don’t matter, the second one you’re kinda forced to deal with.”The leadership of IPFW, Fort Wayne, Purdue-Fort Wayne, whatever that university calls itself that sits on the north side of town was placed at a figurative crossroads Wednesday, and the university would be well-served to heed the advice of George in his words to fictional basketball coach Norman Dale in the movie “Hoosiers.”
Summit League-rival IUPUI unveiled the worst-kept secret in intercollegiate athletics and announced that it was leaving the Summit League for the Horizon League after two decades of membership. The switch will enhance IUPUI in every aspect, athletically or not.
The Jaguars’ recruiting, attendance, marketability to both athletes and non-athletes, as well as their fiscal diligence, will all improve with the move.That leaves the Mastodons now facing a quandary they are “kinda forced to deal with.”
As a university, Fort Wayne (which is what the athletic leadership of the university has officially asked to be referred to as) has come to the point in which it needs to decide whether it wants to, not necessarily excel, but at least be competitive, and thus marketable to the Horizon League for future expansion, because the path that the Mastodons have trudged along for over a decade isn’t sufficient.
The Mastodons now find themselves in a conference in which six of the remaining seven members are at least a 10-hour drive, and to add insult to the matter, Fort Wayne is the worst performer in that conference.
“We are excited about engaging with the other Horizon League member institutions to enhance the overall competitiveness of the league,” IUPUI athletic director Dr. Roderick Perry said in a release. “As an institution and athletics department, our mission, vision, and core values align closely with the Horizon League. This is an important step forward in the life of our athletics department.”
Those words hold a critical message for the leadership of IPFW. “… our mission, vision, and core values align closely with the Horizon League” indicates the degree of commitment that IUPUI has chosen to make as an institution in order to reach its full potential, in all areas, not just athletically.
Until you visit and/or study the examples set forth by Florida Gulf Coast, Wichita State, Gonzaga, VCU, Butler, even Indiana Wesleyan at the NAIA level, don’t scoff at the notion that athletics can transform an entire university.
Fort Wayne has geography, demographics, recruiting base, and a potentially magnificent new downtown arena on its side that could make it the envy of most mid-major athletic programs across the country. However, the university has failed to make any significant level of commitment to utilizing athletics (and all of those mentioned assets) to strengthen the university. That is why IUPUI is in a much more attractive position today than the Mastodons have any hope for in the near future.
Some will point to the location of, and enrollment of, IUPUI as to what sold the Horizon League on the Jaguars, as say, opposed to the Mastodons. There is validity in those points.
However, the real issue for Fort Wayne is that of marketing, or lack thereof. The Mastodons, as an athletic department overall, simply are not that appealing to any league that has viable options in terms of expansion.
IPFW has spent over a decade taking a “halfway pregnant” approach to its participation athletically at the NCAA Division I level. It wants to be at the highest level, it just doesn’t want to do what is necessary to be competitive there. That philosophy could be followed in 2007 – to a certain degree – but it can’t anymore. Intercollegiate athletics, on and off of the field, are just too competitive of an arena to not be fully invested in your mission to compete. That is what separates IUPUI and Fort Wayne.
That isn’t just my opinion; it is also backed up statistically.
For the third straight year, Fort Wayne finished dead last in the nine-team Summit League Commissioner’s Cup competition, which evaluates performance in all sports.
The Mastodons were ninth among the men and ninth among the women this year.
Fort Wayne leaders will accurately point out that the Mastodons field the least amount of teams (13) in the Summit League (Denver has 11 teams that participate in the conference, but 15 overall programs), which leads to its poor performance statistically as a whole. But that actually lends even more credence to my point about a lack of commitment.
It is also accurate to point out that those Fort Wayne squads that do compete, do so poorly.
Of the 13 athletic programs that the Mastodons had (in comparison, IUPUI offers 18 programs), 12 finished in the bottom half of the Summit League standings this past year, including seven that were in last place.
You find that marketable?
In the case of IUPUI, not only are its teams more viable and abundant, but they are better funded. Every single IUPUI head and assistant coach is in a full-time position. Fort Wayne can’t say the same. That practice was acceptable in 1987, at non-Division I levels, but it is embarrassing to have that in place at the NCAA Division I level in this day and age.
The Mastodons, as an athletic department, have indeed been exemplary in a multitude of ways despite its shortcomings. Fort Wayne being a two-time recipient of the Summit League Sportsmanship Award is indicative of such.
The Mastodon student-athletes have performed well academically and have represented the university well in community activities. But off the field achievements, though nice and expected, are not enough any more. There has to be a greater commitment on the part of the university and there has to be better results athletically from the coaches and student-athletes.
The time is now for Fort Wayne, IPFW, whatever the school is called, to be “kinda forced to deal with” the fact that it lags behind its brethren and step up.
This column is the
commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.
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