By JOHN BOHNENKAMP
Western Illinois women’s basketball coach JD Gravina thought about just how close his team got to being stranded in North Dakota at Christmas this season.
The Leathernecks were playing their first Summit League games of the season at North Dakota State and North Dakota. They had taken commercial flights to get to Fargo to play NDSU on December 19 as a blizzard closed in on the Midwest.
Western Illinois was originally scheduled to play at North Dakota on December 21, but with the storm approaching and flights either being canceled or filling up heading into Christmas, the game got moved up day earlier so the Leathernecks could get home before the storm hit.
“To a college player who’s gone an entire year without seeing their family, being stuck on Christmas in Grand Forks would have been miserable,” Gravina said.
That trip was still on Gravina’s mind on Thursday after the press conference at Western Illinois announcing the school’s move from the Summit League to the Ohio Valley Conference on July 1.
Behind Gravina as he spoke was a map showing all of the locations of the OVC schools in relation to Western Illinois. Every trip in the new conference will be by bus.
In the Summit League, the Leathernecks would have to take commercial flights to the North Dakota schools, as well as Denver. That’s a lot of time spent on buses and in airports, and that’s a lot of money that could be used elsewhere.
“Obviously, you talk about money,” Gravina said. “But it’s the unpredictability of flights, and all of the travel headaches that come with that. We’re not going to have that anymore.”
Doing a Google Maps comparison of the travel of distance and driving time within the two conferences, the decision Western Illinois made was obvious.
SIUE — 2 hours, 33 minutes, 145 miles
Lindenwood — 2:46 139 miles
Eastern Illinois — 3:19, 178 miles
Southeast Missouri State — 4:31, 279 miles
Southern Indiana — 5:08, 318 miles
UT Martin — 6:00, 378 miles
Tennessee State — 6:59, 458 miles
Morehead State — 7:49, 478 miles
Little Rock — 8:07, 515 miles
Tennessee Tech — 8:33, 544 miles
Kansas City — 4:29, 296 miles
Omaha — 5:30, 351 miles
Oral Roberts — 7:43, 500 miles
St. Thomas — 6:32, 425 miles
South Dakota — 6:49, 447 miles
South Dakota State — 8:14, 549 miles
North Dakota State — 10 hours, 658 miles
North Dakota — 11:06, 734 miles
Denver — 13:08, 888 miles
“You look at that map, it makes tons of sense for us,” men’s basketball coach Chad Boudreau said, nodding to the map in the corner of the Hall of Fame Room at Western Hall. “Travel was not advantageous for us in the (Summit) league. And that’s a big deal — flight, travel, time, energy.”
“I hesitate to say there was one factor,” Western Illinois athletics director Paul Bubb said. “I think we looked at it from a travel standpoint, an athletic budget standpoint.”
The move ends an era for WIU athletics. The school was one of the original members of the Mid-Continent Conference, the predecessor to the Summit League, and one of the original members of the Gateway Football Conference, the predecessor to the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Western Illinois’ football program will play this season in the Valley, then move to the OVC in 2024.
“Leaving as a founding member isn’t never an easy thing to do,” Bubb said. “There’s something that goes with being a part of the original package.”
“It’s not an easy decision,” Boudreau said. “That’s a tough decision. And hats’ off to Paul for making it.
“That’s the best decision with players and coaches in mind. And we’re all thrilled.”
Bubb said the decision to move to the OVC came during the preparation of the strategic plan for the future of WIU’s athletic program.
Travel, Bubb said, was one of the big concerns.
“Frequently, our students are on bus trips that are seven hours, 9 ½ hours long,” Bubb said. “When we do fly, sometimes we drive to Chicago, we wait at O’Hare an hour and a half to get on a flight. We fly to a location, get off, get on another bus, and either go to the competition or to the hotel.
“Our student-athletes made it clear that those trips impacted their competitions and the ability to compete, but also the missed time for academics.”
Western Illinois, with an enrollment of 7,490, is entering a conference with an average enrollment of almost 8,500. The Summit League’s average enrollment was almost 12,000.
“Budgets are part of it, but it’s also the type of institutions,” Bubb said. “I think the academic profile, the enrollments, the location, all of those things were equally important to us.”
“He hit the nail on the head with ‘peer universities,’” Gravina said, referring to a description Bubb had made during the press conference. “In the footprint of the OVC, I think of universities like us, in a lot of ways. That’s what a conference is about. It’s about playing other schools, other programs like you. So I’m excited about that.”
“It’s regionally good for our families, for our parents,” Boudreau said. “We would always get some blowback from our kids — ‘They have to drive all the way to Sioux Falls for the tournament.’ This is all regional. These are cities that are easy to get to, to drive in and out of.”
For basketball, the OVC plays 18 conference games. Eight teams make the men’s and women’s conference tournaments, with the top two seeds getting byes into the semifinals. The tournament is played in Evansville, Indiana, the home of Southern Indiana.
The OVC ranked 29th in the NCAA’s men’s basketball NET last season, while the Summit League ranked 22nd. The OVC was 28th in the women’s basketball NET, while the Summit League was 21st.
Oral Roberts went undefeated in the Summit League men’s basketball regular season and won the conference tournament. South Dakota State’s women’s basketball team did the same thing.
In the OVC, fifth seed Southeast Missouri State won the men’s tournament, while third seed Tennessee Tech won the women’s tournament.
“You’ll go into the season not knowing who’s going to win the league,” Gravina said. “Now, there are your favorites. But I like the idea of going to the tournament and feeling real parity there. And it’s at a truly neutral site.”
A new league, though, isn’t going to alter the Leathernecks’ approach.
“We were recruiting to win the Summit,” Boudreau said. “And that will articulate into the OVC. It doesn’t change what we do. We want depth, we want athleticism. That doesn’t change.”