The Mid-Majority : What's the Red Line?

What's the Red Line?

"It was everything that basketball's about at the level of our program. For a game between two 'mid-majors,' or whatever you'd call us, it had anything you could ask for."

Jack Kvancz, the great former Catholic University head coach who mentored many who serve in today's coaching community, said that in November 1977, and it's the first recorded use of the term. The game he was referring to was between Catholic (a Division II school) and Howard, a member of the MEAC. The very same MEAC that has sent its champion to four of the last six NCAA Play-In Games.

The term was resurrected two decades later after sportswriters struggled to find a word to describe tiny Gonzaga and its shocking success, and in historical retrospect it was a improper application of the hyphenate. Coach Kvancz meant not big, but mid-major came to mean not big but really good. Ever since the G-Funk Era began in 1998, the disconnect between original meaning and later usage has led to a lot of confusion as to what it really means (not big but decent? sucks?). There is no clear consensus.

The renewed use of "mid-major" over the last 11 years has also coincided with the growth of the consumer internet. The web, as we all know, was invented for arguing about things. And when college basketball fans get bored enough, they debate what a mid-majors are and aren't. "A conference that gets three bids can't possibly be mid-major," one might say. "Our team wins too much to be a 'mid,'" another might say.

The fundamental weakness of arguments like these is -- and always has been -- related to context. The fortunes of programs and leagues rise and fall, bid numbers and win totals go up and down. The more time you spend around college basketball, the more you notice patterns that unfold over time. You see that recruits are naturally attracted to colleges with bigger names and more resources, that play in leagues with larger TV contracts. Talented coaches always seem to move from small conferences to big ones, and their former employers keep struggling to maintain program consistency and clear basketball identities.

And finally, you realize that this is really about money.

In 2007, The Mid-Majority Institute of Basketball Research drew a line across the center of Division I. It was a Red Line. Above it, conferences with an average school athletic budget of $20 million or more (as measured by the U.S. Department of Postsecondary Education). It's not really an arbitrary line, because we've found that over the past three years, the eight richest leagues consistently have beaten teams in the smaller conferences over 85 percent of the time. Now that is a competitve imbalance. We're approaching a 9-out-of-10-doctors landslide here.

Because not all conferences are created equal, we've built caveats into the model. When averaging the schools' men's basketball budgets in each conference, most came to under $2 million or under, or a tenth of all expenses. The Atlantic 14, however, doesn't play American-Style football and spends more on hoops. In the 2008 PSE report, the Missouri Valley joined the A-14 as a second "straddler." Gonzaga is removed from the wins-and-losses tabulation altogether, because no other small-conference school has unlimited access to the cable airwaves like it does. (For the record, the program spent $11 million on athletics in 2008, and $2.5 million -- almost a quarter of its budget -- on the basketball team. That's a super-straddler.)

Dollar figures also show how far Mountain West and Conference USA sit above the Other 24. Flush with football cash, these programs have all the resources they need to compete at a high level. And while their advanced financial standing isn't reflected in multiple NCAA bids and Tournament wins (at least not at the moment), these leagues are in much better positions to excel than, say, the MAC and the Colonial.

The Red Line attempts to define "mid-major" in the spirit of Coach Kvancz's original meaning -- not big.

We realize that introducing a cold, hard cash-related line won't change the majority of minds, especially those of fans who are ruled by irrational pride. The Red Line isn't going to end any internet debates; those will rage on, fed by their own fires. It's simply an apples-to-apples indicator, a steady unit of measurement that transcends momentary basketball success and can be applied the same way over different seasons. And it always shows one painful reality: the rich win out over the poor. A lot.

But there's always that magic one out of 10, that game when an overmatched, underfunded team is able to overcome the odds. We call those "Red Line Upsets," and we delight in them, those games that teach us the most about winning basketball. Teams that pull RLU's have to outwork, outsmart and outplay their big-league adversaries for 40 minutes -- and they usually have to overcome talent and depth deficits with superb teamwork and superhuman performances. These are the wins worth savoring and celebrating.

Before that power-conference program goes and lures their coach away with a seven-figure contract.

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Having completed its sixth season, The Mid-Majority is a website about the 24 smaller Division I college basketball conferences (and independents) by Kyle Whelliston. It will return on November 1, 2010.

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