RIP, “mid-major.” It was a good run.
The term that for years has derisively referred to programs residing somewhere outside the major conferences of college basketball has died. It was 37 years old.
Mid-major had been on life support for nearly a decade as schools such as George Mason, VCU, Butler and Wichita State crashed the Final Four. What had previously been the bastion of blue bloods such as North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke was thrown open to schools with tiny enrollments and modest fan bases, yet enough talent to shake the college basketball establishment.
Its last breath may have come in a ragged gasp as the Shockers rose to No. 2 in the nation this week and Saint Louis elbowed Michigan State and others out of the top 10.
Several coaches had similar reactions: “It's about time,” Wichita State's Gregg Marshall said.
“We travel in private planes. We sell out every game. We treat our program the same as a high major in every way,” Marshall said. “Besides, who decides what a mid-major is, anyway?”
The term was born in 1977, when Jack Kvancz — then the coach of Catholic University — was asked about a nip-and-tuck game against Howard University, and he summarized it thusly: “For a game between two mid-majors, or whatever you'd call us, it had anything you could ask for.”
It was a throwaway comment, but one that took hold, becoming part of the college basketball lexicon as the NCAA tournament exploded in the 1980s into a high-profile event. Suddenly, any program with a small budget or little name recognition was saddled with the description of “mid-major,” back then an endearing term for the scrappy underdogs.
“March Madness is not made on the Kentuckys and Dukes and North Carolinas,” offered Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson. “March Madness is made by VCU, Butler and Wichita State.”
Yet it was the madness of March that started to bury the term mid-major.
Perhaps no other program has been as hard on its health as Gonzaga, which made the Elite Eight in 1999 and has been to the NCAA tournament every year since, earning a No. 1 seed last season.
All that success has changed the way the program is viewed. The Bulldogs are invited to prestigious tournaments such as the Maui Invitational, and are scheduling home-and-home series — often in NBA-style arenas that can seat bigger crowds — against the likes of Kansas State.
They're not the only ones to shrug off the mid-major label.
George Mason didn't look anything but major in reaching the Final Four in 2006. Neither did Butler when it made back-to-back national championships a few years ago, beating another so-called mid-major in VCU in a riveting 2011 national semifinal.
“I think that people that know really our league, and not just us, but other teams in our league, they know we play a major college schedule, in non-conference for sure,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. “And we not only play them, but we have beaten enough of them.”
That's why every March, the term mid-major became more difficult to apply.
That continued with the latest round of conference realignment. When Creighton left the Missouri Valley for the Big East, did the Bluejays suddenly became major? And when entirely new conferences such as the American Athletic combined schools from each side of the debate, did it become a major conference or a mid-major one?
“I do think it's interesting that Creighton was one of the top teams with us the last couple years in this league,” said Marshall, whose Shockers already have wrapped up the Missouri Valley title. “Now they go to the Big East, considered an elite league, and they're dominating the league, and us with them gone are having to justify our (30-0) record. That's an interesting quandary.”
For its part, the NCAA insists that it never labels teams as majors or mid-majors, but it sure becomes point of discussion — or dissension — every time Selection Sunday rolls around.
“We don't get into conference details,” said Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chairman of the Division I men's basketball committee. “We pay no attention to what a team's label publicly might be, whether it's mid-major, major. That is not a factor that we look at.”
Now, it may not be a factor looked at by anybody.
The Shockers are receiving first-place votes, and Saint Louis remained No. 10 in this week's Top 25. San Diego State rose to No. 6 before a recent loss, and schools such as Southern Methodist and New Mexico — schools formerly known as mid-majors — are also appearing in the polls.
Thus, the death of the term mid-major appears to be at hand.
It is survived by other more meaningful ways to compare teams, such as RPI, one of the metrics used by the NCAA selection committee. It was preceded in death by the peach basket, short-shorts and other basketball novelties that ultimately outgrew their relevancy.
“You mention Wichita State and San Diego State,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “Those two teams, as far as I'm concerned, are high majors. That's how they should be viewed.”