College Sports

Sources: A Wichita State move to American Athletic Conference grows more likely

A move to the American Athletic Conference would rekindle a conference rivalry with Tulsa, Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati — all former Missouri Valley Conference opponents.
A move to the American Athletic Conference would rekindle a conference rivalry with Tulsa, Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati — all former Missouri Valley Conference opponents. The Wichita Eagle

The possibility of Wichita State joining the American Athletic Conference has been discussed at the presidential level and is seen as increasingly likely, according to several sources in college athletics who recently spoke on the topic on the condition of anonymity.

A source directly connected to AAC members described Wichita State’s candidacy as strong and expectations among many schools are that the Shockers will be added. Another source involved in college athletics termed it “almost inevitable.”

A timetable is unclear for the possible addition of the Shockers, who would join the AAC for all of its current sports and give the conference a 12th basketball member.

Nine of the conference’s 12 members (football-only Navy will vote) are required to approve a new member. A vote could happen at spring meetings or by conference call.

No American or Wichita State officials have publicly confirmed the possibility of expansion.

People at American schools, Wichita State and the Missouri Valley Conference routinely decline comment on the matter because of the sensitivity of the expansion topic.

The American is, perhaps, interested in the addition to strengthen its basketball product and balance the schedule with a 12th school. Wichita State is looking for a home for athletics that would provide its powerful men’s basketball program a bigger stage and better opponents. WSU also wants to be aligned with higher-profile schools that are more similar to it in location and academic mission than the MVC’s mix of four private and five other public schools, all located in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri.

National media reports add to the growing mood that Wichita State is well down the road to leave the MVC for the American.

“Conversations with sources around college sports this week revealed Wichita upgrading its league — likely to the American Athletic Conference — as a distinct possibility in the near future,” Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated wrote last week. “This could happen in as soon as the next few months or may take a year or two. But the odds are increasing that the Shockers will end up somewhere else, with the AAC offering the highest profile and making the most sense.”

“It wouldn’t be a genuine response if I said we weren’t concerned,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin told Sports Illustrated. “We want them to stay. Losing Creighton was a blow to the league. Losing Wichita State would be the same.”

Speculation about WSU’s interest in the American started in December 2015, when the university announced its plans to evaluate its conference options and the addition of sports. President John Bardo’s desire to associate Wichita State with schools he views as similar institutions — such as AAC-members Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati — drives his interest to help the school’s enrollment, academic and athletic goals.

“We’re an emerging major research university,” Bardo said in 2015. “If you look at what’s happening around the United States, major research universities are the core drivers of those cities that are being successful. We really feel that change in society has positioned us differently.”

Earlier this month, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco batted down rumors of the addition of three basketball schools, while perhaps leaving the door open for one in an interview on Sirius XM radio.

“We have 11 basketball members,” Aresco said. “I’m not certain what we’ll do in the future. We’re always evaluating our basketball to see if we can make it stronger. Right now, there is nothing going on. On the basketball side … we always explore whether we can strengthen ourselves. Until something is actually happening or would happen, I’m not going to comment.”

Also in early March, Mark Blaudschun of TMG College Sports reported that the American, at the presidential level, was discussing affiliate members Wichita State, Dayton and VCU.

The possibility of leaving of MVC is taken seriously by multiple sources in the WSU athletic department, some of whom believe it to be a likely outcome. Others are much less certain. All say leaving the MVC for the American is the desired goal of the university, for academic, enrollment and athletic reasons. Some athletic department personnel have gone as far as to calculate travel expenses in a conference that stretches to Connecticut and Florida.

AAC members are Houston, Memphis, Tulsa, Tulane, SMU, Temple, South Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Central Florida and football-only Navy.

Wichita State players Zach Brown and Markis McDuffie talk Sunday about their selection into the NCAA Tournament. (March 12, 2017)

Wichita State wins MVC Conference Tournament in St. Louis. Photos by Travis Heying

Paul Suellentrop: 316-269-6760, @paulsuellentrop