KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There was a clear gap, at the end of the 2019 MIAA Football Media day, between the teams in the league just hoping to be in the running for the conference title and the teams aching to win a national championship.
The gap’s presence, between the good and the great, the average and the excellent, had nothing to do with the MIAA media or coaches polls. It didn’t have anything to do with which teams are returning seasoned coaches or star players and which teams aren’t, either.
No official polls, statistics, playbooks or rosters allow much insight into the line drawn in the sand, the one that separates contenders and pretenders. And the line drawn — or the issue that caused its drawing — was never really at center stage at the Kauffman Foundation Center in Kansas City, Missouri, July 31 as coaches and players from every team in the conference gathered to spark interest and grab headlines ahead of the season.
It was talked about, sure, but no coach or player made the trip to media day to talk about it.
The MIAA is exploring opening the current schedule format, allowing teams to schedule non-conference opponents in the first week or two of the regular season, in hopes of displaying the conference’s top-end dominance for all to see. The issue is more divisive than it might seem on the surface.
The logic is relatively simple, yet broken. Four conferences make up the NCAA Division II Super Region 3, including the MIAA. Seven spots in the NCAA’s 28-team tournament hail from Super Region 3, with the winner of each conference making the postseason and three at-large bids going to the three top-ranked teams that failed to win their respective conference.
Most coaches in the MIAA tout and believe — and perhaps rightfully so — that their conference is the toughest in the region, if not the country. Some of them are tired of beating up on another, tired of playing in a stacked league that leaves them a win short when it comes time for Selection Sunday and at home for the big dance.
“Anyone can beat anyone,” Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said of the MIAA. “There’s pressure on everybody in this league to win. … We feel like we are the best conference in the country.”
If the MIAA could just play a few out of conference games, the logic goes, then it could prove its dominance over the other three conferences in Super Region 3. And maybe, just maybe, the MIAA’s dominance would be rewarded with a postseason bid for the No. 3 team in the conference.
That’d be great for Pittsburg State. It’d probably be a good thing for Central Missouri and Central Oklahoma, too. At last, these good-not-great teams can go compete in the postseason on the back of the conference’s merit, because that’s clearly the nature of what football should be.
Look, the heavily-intended and hopefully-interpreted sarcasm in that last line throws no disrespect toward Beck or any of the other MIAA coaches supporting this change, a change tabled for discussion until the MIAA board’s next meeting. But the chief issue with the proposition, among a few, is that it, in essence, awards goodness over greatness.
Do you know who really doesn’t like the idea? Fort Hays State coach Chris Brown. You know who else wouldn’t support it? Northwest coach Rich Wright.
The reality of the proposed change is that it does a little bit to help the conference’s bottom feeders, teams like Missouri Southern who could get paid a sizeable guarantee to go get routed by an out-of-conference opponent, or at the very least, could score an easy win over an NAIA team.
The change would, of course, provide the most aid to teams like Pitt State, who could go beat a team in the GLVC, boosting the conference’s perceived toughness and their own postseason chances in the process.
But the change could really only hurt a team like Northwest or Fort Hays. Top-level teams like the Bearcats and Tigers don’t need the conference’s regional reputation to gain merit, they don’t need an increased chance at a postseason bid and they surely don’t want the trouble of trying to find a team to play them.
“I was here back in the days when coach (Mel) Tjeersdma was having to pay schools to come in and play and it becomes a very expensive endeavor,” Wright said. “We spent over $80,000 one year trying to get two non-conference games because when you’ve had the success that we’ve had, nobody wants to play you.”
Beyond the inherent unfairness that could come with the change, issues remain. If the MIAA moves ahead with the proposal, league teams would start their yearly gantlet with two out-of-conference games, opening the door for more missed opportunities within conference play.
How do you crown a conference champion if two teams go undefeated? How do you decide which conference teams get left off Northwest’s schedule in a given year?
“I wouldn’t vote for it,” Brown, who coached Fort Hays to a co-MIAA title last season, said. “We’ve got an 11-game schedule right now. If it’s not broke then why try to fix it?”
Even if the proposed change were to be implemented, Brown doesn’t think it’s likely a third team would get it. There are too many talented teams in the region, Brown said, to award three playoff spots to one conference.
There are too many variables and question marks, too many clear negatives, too many “what-ifs” for the MIAA to move forward with this change, though it could do so as early as 2021. The proposed change makes a lot of sense for the teams who have failed to earn a seat at the table, but it directly impedes the teams that have.
If teams like the Gorillas, Mules or Bronchos want to be in the postseason that bad, they’re going to have to play like it.
“Chris Brown and I are 100% aligned,” Wright said. “Chris made the comment to me out in the hallway earlier; he was like, ‘Nobody felt bad for Fort Hays when we weren’t very good, you know? Get better.’”