Even without a football team, the University of Denver could not escape the fallout from the major, and often dramatic, upheavals in the football-infused structure of collegiate athletic conferences.
A little more than two years ago the DU athletics department celebrated a landmark occasion as it announced it would join the Western Athletic Conference for the majority of the Pioneers' non-hockey programs. Fresh WAC T-shirts were handed out, the Pioneers' cheerleaders danced at the announcement rally, and DU fans in general gave resounding approval for joining a league with a rich history in Colorado's collegiate sports landscape.
Yet within months the WAC as DU knew it during its courtship with the league was no more. Two years of uncertainty ended in late November when DU announced it would join the Summit League beginning next year during the 2013-14 school year.
"When we made the commitment to go to the WAC, we made the commitment truly with an open heart," DU athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes said. "I had even asked the questions about the stability of the WAC. Conference commissioners are losing their hair and losing sleep because of this. I really thought the WAC had gone through most of their change and thought we were going into pretty calm waters where the WAC needed us and we needed the WAC-it reduced our missed-class time, it gave us a geographic footprint, and we would have a home.
"It was maybe a six-week, seven-week honeymoon before we knew a number of the member institutions were leaving. We were very committed to trying to save the WAC. We had like-minded institutions that wanted to do the same thing. But it became very difficult."
While the first warning signs of the WAC's ultimate demise first started rippling before DU joined the league-Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State announced they were leaving the league to join the Mountain West Conference in the months before DU joined the WAC-the WAC situation became markedly less stable not long after welcoming the Pioneers.
Just a few weeks after DU's WAC announcement in November of 2010, Hawaii, perhaps the most prominent remaining institution in the WAC after the previous defections, announced it was leaving the league for the MWC in football and the Big West Conference for the rest of its athletic programs. This year, the WAC defections intensified. Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio, a new WAC member like DU, announced in May it was leaving its new league for Conference USA. On that same day, Utah State and San Jose State moved to the Mountain West Conference. A few weeks later, Texas-Arlington and Texas State, both of which are in their first and only year in the WAC, said they were leaving for the Sun Belt. In August, WAC member Idaho announced it would go independent in football and join the Big Sky Conference for its remaining sports. Not long after, the WAC announced the 2012 season would mark the final football season for the league.
The rash of defections left Bradley-Doppes and the rest of DU's administration scrambling for a new home. With football being the primary reason behind the conference upheavals occurring across the country, DU was challenged to find a new home that not only would fit its academic, athletic, and geographic profile, but one that also would be unaffected by the football-driven shifts that show no signs of slowing.
"The football component is what's driving every single discussion," Bradley-Doppes said. "As we were trying to solidify the WAC, because that was our first intention, we also then became aware of 'If we can't do that, what are our backup options?'
"Us joining the Summit really gives us an opportunity to achieve our core challenges. In conversations with multiple, multiple challenges, it became a significant challenge because it was the conversation of, 'Sure, we'd like to add Denver, but we'd like you to add two or three or four sports.' When you look at that combined with increased travel and membership costs, it became an issue where we were fortunate the Summit wanted DU."
DU will bring 11 of its programs to the Summit League and will begin competition during the 2013-14 school year. The Pioneers programs moving to the Summit League include men's and women's basketball; men's and women's golf; men's and women's soccer; men's and women's swimming and diving; men's and women's tennis; and volleyball.
"Their academics speak for themselves, and with the past successes they've had in athletics, they're set up to be successful in the future," Summit League commissioner Tom Douple said. "Those two items really attracted us. We think it's a great fit with our institutions. As people become more familiar with our league and our institutions, they're going to find we have some great universities in our league. We think bringing in Denver is really going to help solidify our league."
As was the case when DU left the Sun Belt Conference, Denver did not have to pay an exit fee in order to sever ties from the WAC. Additionally, when the Pioneers moved from the SBC to the WAC, one of the attractions was decreasing DU's travel time while allowing the Pioneers' student-athletes to miss less class time.
That aspect should prove even more appealing in the Summit League. Although there still will be a few out-of-the-way locales, such as South Dakota (Vermillion, S.D.) and Western Illinois (Macomb, Ill.), DU will be able to avoid long bus rides with direct flights to Omaha (Nebraska-Omaha), Detroit (Oakland University), Kansas City (Missouri-Kansas City) and Indianapolis (IUPUI).
"Obviously, the WAC changed considerably after we joined," Denver men's basketball head coach Joe Scott said. "The Summit League provides a good, stable league for us to compete in, and it allows Denver to continue our progress as a basketball program and as an institution."
DU women's basketball coach Kerry Cremeans also looks forward to the move: "We recruit nationally, and to be in the Midwest
will be wonderful for us. Personally, for us, we'll be very attractive to kids in the Midwest. I like
that. We'll continue that strong push in the recruiting area, and I think that
will be very good for us."
Follow Pat Rooney on Twitter: @prooney07