FARGO — It was in 2005 when an athletic director from Southern Utah University was appointed commissioner of the Mid-Continent Conference. At the time, the league consisted of teams in nine states and three time zones.
Tom Douple was in charge of an orphanage of NCAA Division I schools, ranging from Centenary College in Shreveport, La., to Cedar City, Utah, to Indianapolis. But for North Dakota State, at least it was a home. Anything is better than independent status.
The press conference to announce NDSU’s invite was a monumental event at the Alumni Center that at the time for athletic director Gene Taylor was as good as it got. Conference affiliation was seen as one of the final steps to the Division I reclassification and as haphazard as it was, the Mid-Con was a better option than the consortium known as the Great West Conference.
In 2007, the Mid-Con consisted of NDSU, South Dakota State, Centenary, Oral Roberts, Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis, Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, Oakland (Mich.), Valparaiso, Missouri-Kansas City, Western Illinois and Southern Utah. Chicago State left in 2006. Douple went to work.
“I go back to the decision to move up to the Dakotas,” Douple said. “I knew then the folks in the east were going to be suspect to the movement.”
Not that it was his doing, but Centenary dropped to Division III. IUPUI, Oakland and Fort Wayne got Horizon League invites. Southern Utah went to the Big Sky. Oral Roberts (Southland Conference) and UMKC (WAC) tested other waters but came back.
Douple was able to change the name of a league that sounded more like a cable television company to a name that carries some unique name recognition. And, most important, he shrunk the map.
In 2021, the Summit will consist of NDSU, SDSU, Western Illinois, South Dakota, North Dakota, Oral Roberts, UMKC, Denver, Nebraska-Omaha and St. Thomas, assuming NCAA approves a DIII to D1 waiver for the Tommies. Only Denver is in another time zone and the Pioneers live near a major airport. That’s 10 teams in eight Midwest states. Collectively, it’s more bus trips than air miles.
In an era in which higher education is more budget conscious than ever, that’s a big deal. Enrollments at colleges across the country are down from a few years ago. A stable Summit makes any talk of NDSU football thinking of an FBS league like the Mountain West Conference a moot point.
There is no way anybody could justify flying volleyball, basketball, softball, soccer, golf, baseball, cross country, track and field to the West Coast all year.
“I look at the cities we’re in,” Douple said. “Kansas City. Omaha and knock on wood soon Minneapolis. We’re in major cities in North Dakota and South Dakota. Then there’s Denver and Tulsa. Those are pretty good recruiting areas and that’s key.”
Many believe Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., will become part of the league at some point but that’s a discussion for another day. The Vikings have three things in their favor: Backing from Sanford Health, the Denny Sanford Premier Center that hosts the conference basketball tournaments and the fact the Summit league office is now in Sioux Falls.
When it comes to mastering a geographical footprint, Douple mastered the thesis. In the process, he put behind his allegiance to Southern Utah and not that he was personally responsible for the Thunderbirds getting an invite to the Big Sky, but the Central Time Zone writing was on the wall.
“I knew the Valpos, Oaklands and Indiana schools all indicated they were not sure they wanted to go in that direction,” Douple said. “That’s OK. We felt it was the direction that was needed and to me it’s proven to be the best decision we ever made.”
After four decades, the former Mid-Con has found some stability. It wasn’t easy.
“I’d say a long haul would be putting it mildly,” Douple said. “There were a lot of potholes and bruises along the way. I think we’re as solid and pleased as we’ve ever been with the footprint and who we have in our league.”