Zimmer: With Western Illinois out, what's next for the Summit League?

The Leathernecks departure leaves the Summit with nine teams and the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 11. But expansion candidates are hard to come by at the moment.

The Summit League will be down to nine members when Western Illinois' move to the Ohio Valley Conference becomes official at the end of the 2022-23 athletic year.
Dave Eggen/Inertia/Dave Eggen/Inertia

SIOUX FALLS — Western Illinois announced on May 12th that the school is leaving the Summit League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. They'll play one more year of football in the Valley but the Leathernecks' departure from the Summit is effective at the conclusion of the spring sports season. They'll be joining the Ohio Valley Conference for all sports.

WIU's departure has not been met with many tears from their peers. The Leathernecks football team went 0-11 last fall. Most of their Summit League teams have been non-factors. And Macomb, Ill., home to the school of some 7,000 Leatherneck students, is a far-flung destination hard to get to, hard to recruit to, and home to largely substandard facilities.

Still, WIU's departure means the Summit is down to nine teams. The Leathernecks were the longest tenured member (they joined in 1982), and are the latest in a consistent string of defections. Since the turn of the century, the Summit has seen Youngstown State (2001), Chicago State (2006), Valparaiso (2007), Centenary (2011), Southern Utah (2012), Oakland (2013), IUPUI (2017) and Fort Wayne (2020) depart, while Oral Roberts and Kansas City both left and came back.

What does this mean for the Summit League's future? Will they look to expand? Who might be the targets or candidates?

Summit League Commissioner Josh Fenton addressed those questions in an interview with Sioux Falls Live.


"I think the Summit League's best days are ahead of us," said Fenton, who took over for the retired Tom Douple last year after having previously presided over the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. "That's not to say we can't continue to do things to enhance the experiences of our student athletes, but there's no doubt in my mind better days are head."

Nine can work

WIU's departure did not catch the league by surprise, though the timing may have. Financial struggles at the school had led to rumors the Leathernecks may be looking to move or even drop below the Division I level. After years of seeing teams leave, and others flirt with leaving, Fenton said potential membership and expansion is always firmly on the radar.

Summit League commissioner Josh Fenton.
Grand Forks Herald photo

In 2020, Augustana University in Sioux Falls applied for Summit League membership. The league declined to add them, citing both the COVID-19 pandemic and their comfort at 10 teams.

Would the league now like to get back to 10?

"I would say we're looking for a membership compilation that maximizes value for everybody, whether that's nine or 10 or more than 10," Fenton said. "There's no doubt there's a benefit to having an even number but that isn't to say you can't work with an odd number. We're going to determine what is in the best interests of the league overall to maximize value of the membership. We've had meetings and discussions in the past leading up to the news (of WIU) last week about where the league is going, so this doesn't really stop that work. We're going to continue to have discussions about whether there's an option out there to potentially enhance that value, and if that means we're at nine teams or 10 or 11 or 12 then so be it."

Who's out there?

So what might the league be looking for in new membership?

Objectively, few of the teams that have left the Summit have been especially devastating losses. And the last several additions have been mostly positive. Omaha, Denver and St. Thomas all got the Summit League into large markets, though none of those schools are major players in those markets. North Dakota, added in 2018, is the largest school in that state.

"I think it goes back to what are the like-minded qualities of the existing membership that could be aligned with other schools that currently aren't members," Fenton said. "That could come down to things like geographical location. That could come down to institutional type. That could come down to media markets. That could come down to financial opportunities because of fan-base size. There are a variety of factors that we look at when we determine whether an (expansion candidate) would enhance value."


So who might fit?

An obvious answer is Augustana. They're in close proximity to all four of the other Dakota schools plus Omaha, Kansas City and St. Thomas. That means bus trips for seven of the nine schools in the league. With travel costs a huge expense for college athletics, that's a major factor. The Vikings have facilities that rival or exceed many in the Summit. Several of those facilities have been added or upgraded in recent years, and the Vikings have also added support staff and invested heavily in coaching and training staffs, which demonstrates a long-term commitment to athletics.

They've won Division II national championships in men's basketball, baseball, softball and cross country within the last decade. They're in a large market and have a long athletic tradition that's fostered a relatively strong fan base. There really aren't any boxes Augustana does not check, especially since Fenton notably did not mention enrollment as one of the factors in potential expansion.

But that does not by any means make the Vikings a slam dunk to be the 10th member.

For starters, schools on the outer fringes of the Summit League map, specifically Oral Roberts and Denver, may not be fond of yet another school from the Dakotas being added. There's already something of a perception that the league, now headquartered in Sioux Falls, has become too much the domain of the Dakotas, and adding Augustana might just be the final straw in pushing Denver or Oral Roberts to look to leave.

Lexi Lander delivers a pitch for the Augustana softball team. The Vikings won the 2019 Division II national championship and have one of the best softball facilities in the region.
Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

Additionally, while the Dakota schools all shared a conference with Augustana back in the Division II days with the North Central Conference, they would potentially have their own reasons to oppose Augustana's membership. Namely, there could be legit concern that a fifth school from the Dakotas (and a third within 60 miles of Sioux Falls) would over-saturate the market. College athletics dominates the sports landscape in the Dakotas to a far greater degree than in the NCC days, and competition for sponsors, season ticket holders, boosters, media coverage and, of course, athletes, is fierce.

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It's understandable that SDSU and USD would have reservations about welcoming in another school — especially one with a strong athletic department — to share in the pie they're already sharing with each other. Though, in many ways it could be argued that the three Sioux Falls area schools already are pulling from the same pie.

Possibilities often mentioned — mostly by fans and media — include former NCC schools Northern Iowa and Northern Colorado, the latter of whom is a Summit League affiliate member in baseball. Other options include one or more of the Minnesota schools in the NSIC (Mankato, St. Cloud, Duluth, etc.), or even schools in Division II conferences, like the MIAA or RMAC.


While never-say-never caveats apply, these are all wishful thinking. The Minnesota NSIC schools, which sponsor Division I hockey, are not going anytime soon. There's never been any indication they want to, and even if they did, the costs would be prohibitive.

There's little reason to think UNI would want to leave the Missouri Valley for the Summit. Northern Colorado's move to Division I has been underwhelming, and leaving the Big Sky for the Summit doesn't make much sense for them geographically.

Kacie Borowicz and North Dakota were the most recent addition to the Summit League.
Courtesy UND athletics

One interesting name that's been floated is Lindenwood, a school that jumped all the way from NAIA (the University of Sioux Falls beat them in the 2009 football national championship) to the D1 level in a little over a decade. The St. Louis area based school is financially strong, but their home in the Ohio Valley is a better fit geographically. And they have football, and Lions coach Jed Stugart, formerly of USF, probably doesn't want that Missouri Valley Football Conference smoke right now.

"A president and a chancellor wants to think globally, beyond the sports profile that an institution offers," Fenton said. "How does my athletic conference help my overall institution continue to grow and achieve the priorities that we've set out? Certainly there are more nuanced details like what sports do they sponsor and things like that, things that get you closer to answering the question of are they a good fit or are they not a good fit?"

How competitive a given school might be is hard to estimate, as it can vary by sport and change quickly depending on internal and external factors. While some speculate certain schools might oppose potential new members that could too easily find success on the fields and courts, at least publicly most say improving the overall strength of the league is better for individual members, too.

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"As a competitor I would want to find the best team we could possibly bring in," said SDSU men's basketball coach Eric Henderson. "I think it helps NET (ranking)-wise and some analytics to have a team that can make everybody better, and how do you do that? By competing and winning. That's what I'm looking for. I don't know what everybody else is looking for but I'd like to see us bring in the best basketball school we possibly could."

When asked if the Summit might want to target schools on the outer edges of the league map as opposed to another one near the I-29 corridor, Fenton said: "I think the geography piece can be looked at in a variety of ways. There may be media opportunities outside the center of the conference we think could be attractive, but there could be opportunities in the middle of the conference that from a travel efficiency standpoint and cost standpoint would be things we'd want to look into. Different factors play into whether one location is better than another."

Augustana apparently isn't ready

If Augustana was ultimately determined the best fit, it's still probably not happening. At least not right now.


When the Summit League said no to the Vikings in 2020, Augustana pivoted, and launched a Division I men's hockey team, which will begin play this fall. All indications are that hockey is such a big undertaking that the Vikings simply don't have the bandwidth — or most likely the budget — to entertain a Division I move in their other sports right now. The new on-campus arena won't be finished in time for their season opener this fall.

Athletic director Josh Morton declined to answer questions about the subject, but the school provided Sioux Falls Live with the following statement: "Augustana athletics is focused on two goals as we continue executing the Viking Bold strategic plan; build a nationally-competitive men’s hockey program that competes at the Division I level and win the Division II Director’s Cup. While we are aware of, and monitoring, the constant changes in the collegiate athletics landscape, Augustana is not actively pursuing a Division I all-sports conference invite."

Augustana's baseball team won the Division II national championship in 2018 and just reached this year's Super Regional.
Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

Sure sounds like D1 is off the table for now, though sources in Vikings athletics have said it's still considered part of Augustana's 'Vision 2030' initiative, in which the school first publicly indicated an interest in Division I.

That could mean the Summit will turn its attention elsewhere, but it could also increase the likelihood the league stays at nine teams for now. If a better fit than Augustana materializes in the short term, that's one thing. If not, the Summit isn't going to want the Vikings if they don't think they're ready. Whether Augustana is still interested in the Summit League, or another Division I all-sports conference, in a few years probably depends on how successful hockey is. That is admittedly speculation since they aren't talking about it.

Of course, if any other member leaves in the meantime (Denver to the WAC? Oral Roberts to the Missouri Valley? St. Thomas to any number of rumored landing spots after the completion of their transition?) the Summit could find itself in desperation mode. They won't want to sit still for long.

Murray State replaces WIU in the Valley

As for the Missouri Valley Football Conference, it will spend exactly one season as a 12-team league with Murray State coming on board this season and WIU set to leave after it. The Valley became an 11-team league when North Dakota joined in 2020, and presumably will have no difficulty going back to 11. Since the conference does not play a full round-robin schedule, with each team playing eight conference games, the difference between 10, 11 or 12 members is not as consequential.

Western Illinois struggled to compete in the Summit League and the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The Leathernecks football team went 0-11 this past season.
Matt Zimmer/Forum News Service

There have long been rumors of NDSU going to the FBS, and if that ever came to pass SDSU would have to consider it, too. Just a few days before WIU's announcement, Missouri State's president told the Springfield News-Leader that the Bears will likely move up to the FBS level at some point. So the Valley should be on alert as well. St. Thomas, a former Division III powerhouse that now plays in the FCS's non-scholarship Pioneer League, could be a candidate eventually.

In the meantime, the leagues will move forward with who they have. The Summit League uses a scheduling consultant to aid in putting together their schedules for all sports, and Fenton said that while having nine teams creates some hurdles they're not much worried about them. The Summit League basketball tournament will continue to include all league members, but the format for it and the other sports will be adjusted at a later date.


"The Summit League as a whole, despite losing a member, will be stronger in the future — much stronger," Fenton said. "That's because of the institutional commitment to Division I at a high level that our members have, and the foundation of the institutions we have — state publics, privates and major markets that want to contribute to Division I athletics at an appropriately high level."

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Matt Zimmer is a Sioux Falls native and longtime sports writer. He graduated from Washington High School where he played football, legion baseball and developed his lifelong love of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings. After graduating from St. Cloud State University, he returned to Sioux Falls, and began a long career in amateur baseball and sports reporting. Email Matt at
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