Earlier this decade, UMKC faced a sports decision.
Remain in the Summit League, where travel was more convenient but NCAA Tournament possibilities, especially for men’s basketball, seemed distant, or change league affiliation and enter the Western Athletic Conference.
The Kangaroos went with the WAC as part of a fresh-start theme: new league, new basketball coach in Kareem Richardson. Change could be good.
It hasn’t been. There hasn’t been a payoff to the move in additional NCAA success or any tournament appearances for UMKC men’s hoops.
But the door remained opened for a return to its original conference, and UMKC is completing the round trip. On Wednesday, the school and Summit League commissioner Tom Douple welcomed each other back and shared some memories in a ceremony on campus.
“It’s so good to see some familiar faces,” Douple said. “I can still see Michael Watson tearing up the courts.”
Douple said the Summit was “disappointed” when UMKC left after the 2012-13 season. After all, this was the only league home the school had known. In 1994, it joined the Mid-Continent Conference, which was since renamed the Summit League.
The tenor of modern conference realignment would call for the league to hold a grudge against the departed school. That wasn’t the case here.
“From Day 1, I wanted them to come back,” Douple said. “It’s been a six-year effort to do this.”
Credit UMKC chancellor Mauli Agrawal and athletic director Brandon Martin, both hired last year, for fast-tracking it. The switch kicks in for the 2020-21 season.
The original move was orchestrated by former athletic director Tim Hall, who wasn’t on campus long enough to see the Kangaroos’ first game in their new league. He had moved on to University of Maryland-Baltimore County two months after UMKC announced its new league home.
In seeking a new conference home, Martin made geographical sensibility a priority.
“We really want to be efficient with our resources,” Martin said.
Translated: UMKC wants to spend less time and expense traveling. The Roos are one of three programs in the Central Time Zone in the nine-school WAC.
When UMKC joins the Summit for 2020-21, eight of the league’s 10 teams will play in Central time.
“When you can drive to most of the schools, for every sport, and start adding that up versus flights, it makes a huge difference,” Douple said.
More than $1 million a year in travel savings, one UMKC official said.
The Kangaroos will thus rekindle some of the school’s longest-standing series, with Oral Roberts and Western Illinois. Their closest WAC opponent is Chicago. In the Summit, it will be Nebraska Omaha.
The fit works for both sides. UMKC not only becomes a school in the center of the league’s footprint, it’s now the Summit’s second-largest market behind Denver and top school in terms of enrollment.
“Location is such a key,” Douple said. “Selfishly, for our league members, you have 2.2 million people in Kansas City (metro area), and a lot of high schools and a lot of talent. It gets our members back in this area on a regular basis for recruiting.”
It must feel good to be wanted. UMKC went through a period of publicly pining for the Missouri Valley Conference, once receiving a site visit. But the school didn’t have enough success or history to merit a call from the Valley.
Now, that doesn’t have to happen for UMKC to feel like it has a home in the right neighborhood.