Commentary

The little guy becomes a power player

Originally Published: May 15, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

And so it can be said that on May 15, 2012, the term mid-major officially became a misnomer.

[+] EnlargeSmart/Stevens
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBuoyed by recent trips to the Final Four, Butler and VCU will soon meet as conference members when both schools begin play in the Atlantic 10.

With the announcement that Virginia Commonwealth has joined Butler as the newest members of the Atlantic 10, the label is now moot. There is nothing middling anymore about mid-majors; these are no longer plucky little engines that think they can knock down the mighty.

They are players, major players in the world of college basketball and they are making moves just like their big-boy brethren -- following the money trail all the way to $greener$ pastures.

Of course, following in someone's footsteps is a good idea only if your predecessor sets a good example.

And in this case, unfortunately, the usually charming, feel-good, do-good mid-majors are walking the same path that their greedy, mercenary big brothers have paved.

Don't get me wrong. I get it. VCU and Butler are moving to the Atlantic 10 for reasons that are both fiscally sound and athletically prudent. I don't really blame them. In fact, as a basketball fan, I froth at the idea of such a solid, basketball-centric conference amid the world of football-centric arranged marriages.

With Old Dominion still dithering over a move to Conference USA, the Rams were in danger of playing fiddle on the Titanic, and with the Big East still trying to figure out its membership, the A-10 could be steering the rig into the iceberg if it didn't take care of itself.

As Xavier president Father Michael Graham, who chairs the Atlantic 10 council of presidents, said succinctly and candidly, "We're not interested in not being in the driver's seat in terms of our conference's future."

In these times, these are more than reasonable decisions destined to strengthen two superior programs and an already strong conference.

It's just that these times are so unreasonable, which is what makes it hard not to feel a little squeamish.

It's like that last little bit of glimmering naiveté -- the notion that mid-majors were somehow in it for something else -- died today:

Mid-Major Idealism, born March 14, 1991 (Richmond over Syracuse), died May 15, 2012.

At 2:30 p.m. ET, I listened to the Atlantic 10 and VCU offer their reasoning for their new allegiance. They blathered on, as conference and university administrators tend to do in these scenarios, about academic fit, integrity, strategic planning and athletic excellence.

Both failed to address the simple truth -- former athletic director Norwood Teague made a Smart hire.

Shaka Smart is the reason VCU is in the Atlantic 10. Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens move the needle more than any two young head coaches in college basketball right now. If you are a conference commissioner, would you rather be the A-10's Bernadette McGlade, welcoming Smart and Stevens and their combined three Final Four appearances in the last three years to the fold, or be commissioner TBA, bringing James Dickey, Donnie Jones and a host of NIT bids to the Big East?

Five years ago, the Atlantic 10 wouldn't have been clamoring to grab Butler or VCU. Now it's like adding Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to your dinner party invite list.

[+] EnlargeMichael Rao
AP Photo/Steve HelberOn Tuesday, VCU president Michael Rao announced the Rams' move to the Atlantic 10 for the 2012-13 season.

And that's good for Butler, VCU and all mid-majors because it proves that if you have success, regardless of what your budget might look like, you can make things happen. You can be a player in these tumultuous times of conference land-grabbing.

Of course, it's bad for the Horizon League and potentially even worse for the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA, having already lost Georgia State and with rumors of ODU's departure percolating, is down to 10 members and for a league that has -- at times unfairly -- struggled to get at-large bids, that makes it even more difficult sledding.

At 3:30, slightly less than 30 minutes after the A-10 call ended, the CAA hosted its teleconference, the counterpoint if you will, with commissioner Tom Yeager. The longtime administrator took the high road, saying that "Anytime someone leaves for something better, there's feelings that aren't particularly positive, so I don't think my feelings are any different than any number of conference commissioners going through the same process."

Pushed to respond to news that he had heard about the decision via a third party, rather than from VCU directly, he blanched.

"Nothing to be gained by commenting on that," he said. "Nothing to be gained."

He's right. There's enough backbiting and backstabbing going on right now in college athletics that even a small moratorium is a welcome departure.

Yeager insisted his conference will survive and could find a new suitor before the start of the next athletic calendar to overcome VCU's hasty exit if it had to (which he said it didn't and won't).

Which, of course, means another conference would be pickpocketed, a league slightly lower in stature than the CAA, presumably.

Which would then simply make the CAA no better and no different than the Atlantic 10, which is no better and no different than Conference USA, which is no better and no different than the Big East, which is no better and no different than, well, you get the point.

Conference raiding is nasty business only when you are being raided, not when you're doing the raiding.

Because this is where we are on May 15, 2012. The mid-majors are now players.

For better.

And for worse.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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