The most objective voices in sports are the ones with money at stake, like merchants of team gear. Sports apparel stores stock what moves. What better measure of interest?
Establishments in Kansas City, with its love of college sports, load up on Kansas, Missouri and Kansas State apparel, but wander into one of the gear superstores like Rally House, and the choices are overwhelming.
There are rows upon rows of Wildcats, Tigers and Jayhawks stuff, but Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Iowa State, Nebraska, Iowa and other colleges have sections. At one place, there were 14 different hat styles for TCU.
Every school with regional interest was there, it seemed, except UMKC.
That changed on Thursday.
Kansas Sampler on Quivera Road in Lenexa held an unveiling of a Kangaroos’ corner, with chancellor Leo Morton, other school officials and new men’s basketball coach Kareem Richardson greeting friends and fans.
The occasion marked the latest in a series of moves by UMKC over the last few months to improve its visibility along with its viability.
The move from the Summit League to the Western Athletic Conference, committing more money to the basketball coaching pool and attracting Richardson from national champion Louisville, playing host to a site visit for officials from the Missouri Valley Conference, and getting gear into a popular store are part of the plan.
So is moving back into Municipal Auditorium for next season.
“When you talk about selling the program, it’s a wide range of selling,” Richardson said.
But will people buy?
UMKC has attempted various sales pitches over the last few years, and nothing has caught on. Even understanding that Kansas City’s college sports interest is dominated by the large schools, UMKC, despite 42,000 alumni in the metro area, simply hasn’t registered in the region’s sports conscious, not in a way expected of a Division I program.
So moves are made, and they all seem to point in the right direction.
The conference shift can be debated — UMKC is going from a league that ranked 19th in men’s basketball RPI last year to one that finished 13th. A step up, right? But the WAC expects to take a plunge with next year’s alignment.
The Kangaroos moved to join schools of similarly sized athletic budgets with hopes of a greater chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
Other UMKC teams have had greater success: the Kangaroos have won 22 conference trophies, either a first-place regular season finish or postseason tournament. The men’s soccer, tennis and golf teams have competed in NCAA tournaments — golf and tennis this year — of 11 times.
The Kangaroos have sent individuals and collected NCAA team scores in men’s cross country and men’s and women’s outdoor track, most recently a sixth place and All-America finish by steeplechaser Courtney Frerichs at last week’s NCAA meet.
But basketball ambition is what lured UMKC to the NCAA from the NAIA and, without a postseason appearance — or even a trip to the conference tournament title game in its quarter century in Division I — it’s fallen short of the vision and has dragged down the school’s athletic perception in the process.
The momentum has shifted recently. Hiring Richardson, who spent a year as a UMKC assistant in 2007, and having him and his staff put together a late recruiting class heavy on Kansas City natives sent a welcoming message to prospects in this region.
Winning basketball would be the payoff. When this has happened on a few occasions in UMKC’s history, fans responded. But the Kangaroos have never built on any success. The program has fired coaches at the wrong time, hired the wrong ones, didn’t provide enough support — and didn’t get results when it did.
It’s easy to spin positively in the offseason, especially with a new coach. But there are some tangible signs of progress: T-shirts and hats in an apparel store. You can also go to the store’s website for gear with 11 choices. There are 1,965 for Kansas, 1,311 for Kansas State and 1,270 for Missouri.
But at least UMKC is in the game.