With Creighton on the Way Out, Arch Madness May Never be the SamePosted by dnspewak on March 11th, 2013
Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is an RTC correspondent. He covered the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis over the weekend.
On the first weekend of every March, a mob of blue invades St. Louis. In this baseball-crazed city normally occupied by nothing but Cardinal red, these blue people seize the downtown area and take no prisoners. They are everywhere. At the Sheraton Hotel on 14th street. The bars. The restaurants. The Metrolink train. Some might call them obnoxious.
Others might call them winners. This blue mob supports the Creighton Bluejays, who have claimed nine Missouri Valley Conference Tournament titles since the league moved the championship event to St. Louis in 1991 and effectively created the phenomenon known as “Arch Madness.” There are nine other teams in the Valley, of course, all of which fill the Scottrade Center with their own mobs of yellow, purple, red and even other shades of blue. But they’re not Creighton. Two months ago, for instance, the league released the pre-sale numbers for Arch Madness tickets sold before January 1. Drake, Bradley, Indiana State and Missouri State had sold 150. Evansville had sold 200. Southern Illinoishad sold 300. Illinois State and Northern Iowa had sold about 400. Wichita State finished in second place with a robust 1,019.
The mob of Creighton blue had bought 4,000 tickets. That’s before the New Year. “The scene at our hotel, our sendoff, if there’s another one like it in the country, it can’t top it,” coach Greg McDermott said. “It gives you goosebumps. Hair stands up on the back of your neck when you come down that escalator with all those people.” When the actual games begin in St. Louis, no fan base at the tournament matches the intensity of the Bluejays. It should be noted that the Shockers also travel quite well from Wichita, and no matter their record, they’re easily the second best group of fans at Arch Madness on a yearly basis. Still, during Sunday’s championship game, the blue mob had a modest but clear advantage over the yellow one at the Scottrade Center. “It felt like a home game,” McDermott said. The Bluejays played like they were in Omaha, too. Doug McDermott didn’t have a vintage game in front of a national television audience (which apparently did not even get to see the whole game in some markets, which is a story for another day), but his experienced group of teammates made enough defensive stops and held off a late Wichita State rally to cut down the nets for a second straight season. When Malcolm Armstead’s three-point attempt at the buzzer clanked off the rim, the blue mob rushed the floor and celebrated with the team like it was the end of the world.
In a way, it was. It might have been the end of an era, at least. There’s no official confirmation or announcement yet, but Creighton appears set to depart the Missouri Valley for the new Big East/Catholic Seven, a move that could take place as early as 2013-14. Next year. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m not involved in that decision,” the head coach said after Sunday’s title game. “So I’m not even very comfortable commenting.” And then he did comment. “If it happens, it will be very bittersweet for me because I love this league, I love the people that run this league, but I also understand the dynamics of college athletics today.” Before the press conference even began, he used his opening statement to gush about the Valley staff’s preparation for the weekend. He may not have any involvement in the school’s decision to switch conferences, but he seems to know there’s a very real possibility that he’ll never coach in Arch Madness ever again. Considering he previously coached at Northern Iowa before hopping to Iowa State and eventually Creighton, there may not be another coach in the league with more of a connection to this tournament than him. “I’ll just say this. The Missouri Valley Conference has been great to Creighton,” McDermott said. “And I’d like to think that Creighton has been great for the Valley, and the teams that I brought here have added something to this league.”
Creighton’s potential departure is unnerving for the conference, considering the enormous amount of ticket sales and revenue the program brings. It ranks in the top 10 nationally in attendance on a yearly basis at the CenturyLink Center, and there’s also the small matter of, you know, the fact that the program wins a lot. Dana Altman qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments during one nine-year stretch in Omaha (he won 327 games in 16 seasons), and McDermott has now made two straight after a brief hiatus. That’s why the crazy blue mob drives six hours to St. Louis during the first weekend of every March. They even anger the opposing coaches in the league. “I’d rather them be a little sad leaving than all jacked up leaving,” Gregg Marshall said before the title game showdown. He didn’t get his wish, though, and now the Valley may need to find another fan base with the same sort of passion and, more importantly, ticket sales.
But it would be snobby to assume the Missouri Valley lives and dies with Creighton. The nine other teams in this league do quite well for themselves. The Shockers have one of the most intimidating home courts in college basketball at Koch Arena and rival Creighton in terms of fan tenacity. Missouri State opened the marvelous, $67 million JQH Arena in 2008. Southern Illinois just renovated its arena, and Evansville introduced the brand-new Ford Center in 2011, complete with $127 million in costs and 11,000 seats. This is a unique, basketball-driven league, an oddity in the current football-driven landscape of college sports. Creighton might leave for the Big East or the Catholic Seven or a Conference To Be Named Later, but the Valley will survive because it is a collection of successful programs with strong fan bases to support their administrations. When Northern Iowa won two straight titles in 2009 and 2010, purple began to invade the Scottrade Center. The Saluki fans, still clinging to the good ‘ol days of Bruce Weber, Matt Painter and the ferocious defense that helped them become a national power last decade, still bring a strong contingent despite their recent demise. If Barry Hinson gets that program rolling again, you’ll see a mob of maroon in St. Louis again. When Creighton and Southern Illinois played for the title in 2007, it drew the largest crowd in Scottrade history to ever watch a basketball game. There was a lot of blue, yes, but the Salukis know how to bring the heat, too.
Those examples help provide a little perspective. This isn’t just the Bluejays’ conference. They’re the best team in the Valley right now and the program with the most devoted fan base, but the league is stable enough to overcome the loss. It’s impossible to know exactly who commissioner Doug Elgin may target as a replacement (Saint Louis, Belmont, Loyola, Denver and Oral Roberts seem like attractive candidates, among possible others), but he’ll find a way to fill the void. The loss of Creighton will be difficult to swallow for traditionalists in the Valley, but maybe they’ll take solace in the fact that the blue mob can go bother somebody else for a change.