UNI excited about Valpo joining the MVC

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CEDAR RAPIDS — They are still in the negotiating stage. That’s a large part of the deal when a school is invited to join another conference.

But all indications are that Valparaiso will be the 10th member of the Missouri Valley Conference sooner than later. Sources indicate it likely will be official next week.

Presidents of the nine MVC institutions extended an invitation Monday night to the Indiana school to replace Wichita State in the league. Wichita joined the American Athletic Conference in early April.

Various published reports said Murray State, Milwaukee and Nebraska-Omaha also were considered.

“We are excited that Valpo has been offered an invitation,” Northern Iowa Athletics Director David Harris said Friday evening. He was taking part in the University of Northern Iowa Panther Caravan that made a stop at the Marriott Hotel in Cedar Rapids.

“Being behind the scenes a little bit and hearing some of the discussions, we feel like as (negotiations) work out, they will be a good fit for our conference,” Harris said. “They bring a number of things to the table that we think are beneficial to the Missouri Valley Conference. We’re certainly excited to have a new partner, a new member, potentially, in our conference. We want to work together with everyone in the conference to make sure the Missouri Valley is as strong as it can possibly be.”

Wichita State departing was a huge hit for the MVC, which lost Creighton to the Big East in 2013. They, along with UNI, were the bellcows for the league from a men’s basketball standpoint.

Valpo — which has been a member of the Horizon League — fits geographically in the Missouri Valley and from a men’s basketball success standpoint as well. The Crusaders have made nine NCAA tournament appearances.

“I’m confident that we have and look forward to having somebody who’s already been very competitive in men’s basketball. That’s important for our league right now,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said during a Coaches vs. Cancer fundraising event Friday night in Des Moines. “With the departure of Creighton a few years ago, with the departure of Wichita now, our league looks different. To be able to add somebody like Valpo, who already has been good and already has tradition and already has a name nationally, I think that was important for us.”

“We’ve been through a number of changes in our conference in our 110-year history,” Harris said. “There will likely be some changes in the future as well. But the conference has shown the type of resiliency that just makes it a strong place. A place where we feel comfortable as an institution to where we want to be and work together to make sure we are competing at a high level. All of our members.”

Harris said it is his understanding that the MVC will consider expansion in the near future. A move to 12 teams would certainly create two divisions and help on travel costs.

There should be no shortage of candidates, and they likely will extend beyond Milwaukee, Nebraska-Omaha and Murray State. The rumor mill included schools such as Belmont and St. Louis this time around.

“The presidents have said that over the next year or so, they want to look at opportunities that may present themselves, to be able to add two additonal members,” Harris said. “I think that’s yet to be determined. I think the main thing for us will be are there two programs we think will fit? Will they fit athletically, will they fit academically? Do we feel they will bring something significant to the conference that is worthwhile (enough) for us to do that expansion? If those schools, those institutions really show those types of characteristics, then I know our presidents will take a look at whether that’s in the best interest of our conference.”

Harris has been on the job at UNI a little over a year, coming over from Iowa State. He said he and his family feel at home in Cedar Falls, adding they recently (and finally) sold their home in Ames, which was a big relief.

He patterned the first-year Panther Caravan after ISU’s Cyclone Caravan, which makes stops throughout the state to promote the school and its athletics programs. UNI’s caravan — which included coaches, admissions staff and President Mark Nook — was in Dubuque on Thursday night and the Quad Cities on Friday afternoon.

It will stop in Des Moines next week, as well as Clear Lake and the Twin Cities.

“I think we’re in good position (as a department), but at the same time, you have to continue to make strides,” he said. “If you look at just this past year from a competitive standpoint, softball won a regular-season championship, wrestlig wins a regular-season championship, cross country wins their tournament championship. Then we have volleyball and women’s basketball that both get at-large (NCAA) bids. Overall, I feel like we’re in a good place. We were able to secure contract extensions with (women's basketball) Coach (Tanya) Warren and Coach Jake. Academically, our (athlete) GPA continues to be above the GPA of our (overall) student body. Our graduation rate is equal to our student body. We had an APR where five of our teams were in the top 10 percent of the country. So, by and large, with all the community initiatives we have going on, we feel like we are in a good place.”

Fundraising will be a key job for him, with state support for the UNI athletics department likely to continue to dwindle.

“We need more fans, we need more support, we need more resources,” Harris said. “We have to make sure we do everything we can to build what UNI athletics is going to be in the future. We’re concentrating on right now, we’re concentrating on next year. But in my position, I have to make sure we are all focusing on five, 10 years down the road. The investments we are making today will determine what UNI athletics looks like in the future.”

The Gazette's Dylan Montz contributed to this report.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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