On Monday, the fall semester began at Loyola Chicago, which officially joined the Atlantic 10 Conference on July 1 after spending nine seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Thanks to its men’s basketball program’s Cinderella run to the Final Four as a No. 11 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, followed by a Sweet 16 appearance three years later, the Ramblers parlayed the end of a 30-plus-year NCAA tournament drought into an invitation to a multi-bid conference in the A-10.
How does a university establish its goals and benchmarks when it changes its conference affiliation? And what does a conference hope to gain from the addition of a single institution?
On3 spoke with A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade and Loyola Chicago AD Steve Watson to better understand how a conference office and an athletic department approach conference expansion and realignment, respectively.
“To say that it was really quick is kind of like an understatement,” Watson told On3 last week. “It took a long time but then when it actually got serious, it moved super, super fast. You know, there was mutual interest and we were maybe feeling each other out a little bit early in the process.
“But then as we dug deeper on our end and really decided that this was something we were interested in, that we were ready to tackle, that process then was such a short period of time.”
Loyola Chicago’s institutional fit
There’s a reason that the Action Network’s Brett McMurphy’s recent report that “Oregon initiated preliminary discussions in Chicago” with the Big Ten included the detail that Oregon representatives wanted “to determine if [the] Ducks are compatible” with the conference.
Institutional fit, which could include components such as a school’s location, academic standards and institutional values, are an important part of a conference’s makeup.
“It certainly does expand our brand,” McGlade told On3 the day before Loyola Chicago officially joined the conference. “It certainly strengthens our relationship with the Jesuit institutions, which as you know, is critically important. We have several Jesuit institutions, but all of our institutions do recruit in that Chicago area, as you mentioned, not only student athletes but undergraduate students.”
Many of the A-10’s member schools are located along the Eastern Seaboard. The addition of Loyola Chicago provides the conference greater access to one of the largest TV markets in the country, plus a second school in the Central Time Zone, joining Saint Louis.
“To be able to be in another time zone is really tremendously beneficial when we start scheduling and stacking up those games,” McGlade said. “We have multiple national games on the same day and so that’s really great.”
McGlade cited Loyola Chicago’s academic standing as another way in which the university is aligned with its new conference. The A-10 has traditionally ranked in the top five in Academic Progress Rate (APR) and Graduation Success Rate (GSR), she said.
“The Ivy League seems to beat us out all the time, but we’ll tip our hat to them,” she joked. “We do care about our graduation rates and they’re important and I think Loyola is going to be right in step with all of our other member institutions in that regard.”
The value of institutional alignment
Before the A-10 evaluated Loyola Chicago based on its institutional fit, the university needed its internal institutional alignment.
In the summer of 2018, after the Ramblers made the Final Four, Watson, President Jo Ann Rooney, Senior Vice President for Administrative Services Tom Kelly and then-Chair of Loyola Chicago’s Board of Trustees Bob Parkinson traveled to Gonzaga to learn how the former mid-major men’s basketball program became one of the best in the sport. The group spent time with Gonzaga’s AD and president.
“Obviously, aspirational,” Watson said, laughing. “We’ve got a long way to go to get where Gonzaga is but that was our intent.”
The Loyola Chicago contingent certainly wasn’t the first — and likely not the last — to fly to Spokane to try to learn from Gonzaga’s roughly 30-year climb to prominence. However, Watson said Loyola Chicago was the first school to bring stakeholders who held those four specific roles.
“A lot of people want to talk to Gonzaga,” Watson said. “‘What’s the secret sauce?’ Or, ‘What’s the one thing?’ But nobody had ever done what we had done.”
Watson remembers repeatedly hearing the phrase “institutional alignment” when the Loyola Chicago leaders visited Gonzaga. Gonzaga’s president and AD “spoke the same language,” Watson said.
Amid changes at the presidential level and within the Board of Trustees, Watson believes that alignment will continue to exist at Loyola Chicago. Like Watson learned from his trip to Gonzaga, there’s not one single key to success.
“The success that we’ve experienced goes back 15 years,” he said, “when our former president, Father [Mike] Garanzini, he had a plan to invest in athletics.”
A-10 provides Loyola Chicago exposure
Just as McGlade said the A-10 will have more scheduling flexibility with another member institution located in the Central Time Zone, Loyola Chicago will benefit from playing in larger media markets and in front of more national TV audiences. The A-10’s media partners include ESPN, CBS Sports and NBC Sports/USA Network.
“In this day and age with the way the recruiting is and the young athletes that we’re all recruiting around the country, you know everyone wants to be seen,” McGlade said. “Everyone wants to be seen on TV. Everyone wants to be able to be competing in a national schedule and from their perspective, I think that’s really something that they are looking forward to.
“I mean, they’re now going to be every year, multiple times a year, traveling on charters into the New York market, the Washington, D.C., market, the Charlotte market, the Philadelphia market and so that brand expansion is something that the A-10 brings to Loyola that will continue to help… rise their tide and what they’re doing, which is kind of hand in hand with where we want our member institutions to be.”
Loyola Chicago’s engagement with East Coast
Loyola Chicago will replace many of its long, Midwest bus trips with shorter bus trips to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The athletic department’s travel budget has increased as a result.
The door-to-door travel time to Washington, D.C., may not be much different than a bus ride to Evansville, Watson said, but it could provide new experiences for Loyola Chicago athletes. Watson said by joining the A-10, “We want them to be able to experience something that they not necessarily were able to experience while they’re riding a bus to one of the schools in the Valley.”
Loyola Chicago will have also new engagement opportunities with university alumni and prospective students in major East Coast markets through its advancement and enrollment divisions.
“Those are some very, very specific things that we’ll be able to do as we transition in the Atlantic 10 that are outside, to some extent, the world of athletics,” he said, “but definitely really important and a big part of the decision when Loyola decided to go to the Atlantic 10.”
Plans to ‘compete for championships’
Loyola Chicago’s men’s basketball team finished with a 25-8 record last season. It earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Ramblers’ final ranking of No. 29 on kenpom.com was 11 spots better than Davidson, which was the A-10’s highest-ranked team.
Loyola Chicago, whose men’s basketball program returns three of its top five scorers plus a 31-year-old head coach in Drew Valentine, is in a position to be competitive immediately in the A-10, which has had as many as six teams earn NCAA tournament bids in a season.
Based on an analysis of expenses reported to the U.S. Department of Education through Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA), Loyola Chicago’s men’s basketball’s program expenses of $3.8 million rank seventh, when compared among the A-10’s 14 member schools from last season.
The athletic department’s total expenses of $15.2 million rank 13th, but it’s worth noting seven of its new conference peers sponsor football.
“We want to be nationally relevant, successful,” McGlade said. “We’re a multi-bid [league] in the NCAA tournament and we want to continue to be in that arena with those schools in that field and the opportunity to win national championships.”
Women’s soccer is another sport where the Ramblers expect to make a competitive transition. Loyola Chicago won four consecutive regular-season and tournament titles in the Missouri Valley, while Saint Louis has won four consecutive A-10 tournaments. Something will have to give this season, when at least one of the schools’ four-year streaks will end.
“That was our intent from the beginning,” Watson said. “It wasn’t something where we’re going to go into this league and try to climb our way up in the league. We felt like we can come in and be competitive and compete for championships right from the beginning. It’s a big ask. It’s a heavy lift, as they say. However, that’s the way we’re tackling this thing.”