There has been a lot of talk recently of doing away with the title of “mid-major.” These comments are spawning from the recent success of mid-major programs across America. It is becoming more apparent that the level of separation between big time programs and mid-majors is becoming much smaller while the amount of mid-major success on the national level is on the rise. To calm the uproar of some college basketball enthusiasts who frightfully see big time programs falling back down to earth, the idea to do away with the title “mid-major” seems like an appropriate measure. In reality, all this would achieve would be to put an asterisk aside the success of several players in America and to punish college basketball programs that have been doing things the right way.
Mid-majors are not classified by the amount of success they achieve, but rather by a few simple characteristics which make them unique to the major conferences. Just like the BCS denotes specific conferences in college football, mid-major schools are defined by the conference they compete in and the amount of funding their program receives from the school budget. (Ed: Ohio State has an athletic budget near $90 million, while budgets in the Horizon League are all between $5 to $10 million.) Simply because a school is starting to be successful on the national level does not necessarily de-classify itself of its mid-major status.
Dan Dickau, Blake Steppe, Ronnie Turiaf, and, of course, Adam Morrison have led Gonzaga from being a yearly WCC contender to a nationally ranked team the last few years. Going back a few seasons, teams like Bucknell, Southern Illinois, Bradley, UW Milwaukee, Wichita State, and UNC Wilmington, all have made noise and won games in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, the magical ride that Jim Larranaga led 11th seeded George Mason University on in 2006 has changed the landscape of mid-majors and the expectations of many programs around the country. In a way, Larranaga has hurt some mid-major conferences across America because athletic directors will look at the similarities between their programs and GMU and think, “Hell, why can’t we go to the Final Four?” Despite these newfound expectations and while some coaches will give a much chagrinned “thank you” to the Patriots head coach, the fact remains that mid-major programs can win at any level.
These mid-major programs are now kicking at the heels of the major programs for a few reasons. First off, the players on the mid-major level are often less recruited and have a lower profile than the big name McDonald’s All Americans going to Duke, UNC, UCLA, and other power houses. As a result, these mid-major players come into college with an open mind and look to their experience in college not as a stepping stone to the NBA, but as an opportunity to grow and develop as a player. Secondly, as mid-major players, the NBA scouts aren’t barking down the area door to get a look at these guys. Therefore, these mid-major teams don’t have players leaving early and, conversely, have more seniors and more unity than a major program that has a quicker rotation and influx of players. One such team in 2006 was the Davidson Wildcats who won the Southern Conference to get a bid in the Big Dance. Davidson had seven seniors on its roster and all seven were key contributors. I asked a member of that team, Brendan Winters, a 2005 Honorable Mention All-American, what he thought. Winters carries a similar belief, “Individually, the ‘major’ players will always be more talented, but as a team, I think the mid-majors will always have better chemistry in general because they are able to build up over four years.” Combine these two factors along with a great pool of players in America and abroad and the results are sure to follow.
So where do we go from here? The answer is rather simple. We must acknowledge the fact that mid-majors are producing better teams and better results than ever before. We must also accept that mid-majors along with major programs have the ability to compete and win at the highest level in college basketball. But what can not happen is to do away with the title of mid-major. Some programs take pride in filling the role of David instead of Goliath. The underdog feeling exists for many teams across America. This is the true beauty behind college basketball. Take a look at college football; if you want to win a national championship and you aren’t in a BCS conference, it is going to be a very tall task. The level of respect within college basketball is almost completely absent in college football, probably rightly so because it is a different game, but only in college basketball can you have a team from the CAA two games away from winning a division 1-A national title.
There are, of course, the mid-major programs that still continue to struggle. These programs need to be considered in the same category as Gonzaga, the poster child for mid-majors across America. Individually, we will be hard pressed to see another mid-major in the Final Four next year, but on the whole, the level of success of mid-majors will continue to rise. Winters said, “I don't think the title of mid-major needs to be re-evaluated because that is what the schools are in terms of the size and money that their programs have compared to the ‘major’ schools.” I couldn’t agree with Brendan anymore, so let’s stop the debate over re-classifying these teams and simply commend them on running a program the right way.