Elgin was the perfect leader for the Valley

By John Bohnenkamp

Doug Elgin looked out at the Wells Fargo Arena court and shook his head.

Elgin, the Missouri Valley Conference’s commissioner, had come to the Hy-Vee (formerly Big Four) Classic for its finale in 2018. The two Valley teams from Iowa — Drake and Northern Iowa — were playing Iowa State and Iowa, respectively, in the event created after the home-and-home series between the four schools were discontinued.

Now this event was in its final year, and it would mean lost opportunities for two Valley teams to play their in-state rivals from power conferences.

“It’s very discouraging,” Elgin said at halftime of the Iowa State-Drake game. “The losers in this are the young men who play high school basketball in Iowa. They’re not going to be able to play in these games, be a part of this.”

He shook his head again.

“It’s just really unfortunate that Iowa and Iowa State have decided to discontinue it,” Elgin said. “I think they had a beautiful event, with the rivalries. I’m just disappointed to see it going away.”

Elgin was always ready to fight for his league.

In 2006, four Valley men’s basketball teams made it into the NCAA Tournament, with Wichita State and Bradley reaching the regional semifinals. Yet there was criticism, especially from CBS’ Billy Packer, over the conference receiving three at-large bids, comments that still bothered Elgin when I talked to him a few months later for a story I was working on regarding the Valley’s success.

The Valley announced on Wednesday that Elgin would be retiring at the end of this academic year, ending his 33-year run in charge of the conference.

The Valley is a strong, unified league because of Elgin, a conference that resisted the temptation to expand during a time when there was upheaval. Even when Wichita State and Creighton left, Elgin found replacements in Loyola and Valparaiso, cementing the conference within the Chicago media market while not expanding the league. Loyola rewarded the choice with a run to the 2018 Final Four.

The conference, with its offices located in St. Louis, made that city a prime NCAA Tournament stop, with one men’s Final Four and two women’s Final Fours to go along with eight other regional or first/second round appearances. The conference’s men’s basketball tournament has been entrenched in the city since 1991, a four-day event called “Arch Madness” that is in a perfect spot.

Elgin made the Valley what it is — a strong conference that resists the label of “mid-major,” a term Elgin has never really liked.

The conference will begin a search for Elgin’s replacement, but it won’t be easy. Whoever succeeds him will have to find a way through a time in which college sports will be trying to find a way out from the economic damage caused by the current COVID-19 pandemic. There always will be the constant threat of change, the challenge to maintain membership while always considering replacements or expansion.

The best choice will be a commissioner who will fight for the league the way Elgin did.

That fight defined his tenure.

Photo of Doug Elgin courtesy of the Missouri Valley Conference.

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