It's the summer of 1998. The Horizon League is a Midwestern Collegiate Conference that looks, in men's basketball, to be on the precipice of becoming a "major" - not quite high-major, but definitely better than the other mid-majors. They just put three schools in the NCAA Tournament, and with only eight as a conference, they hunted for another big gun to make multiple bids annually. A short time later, they added one.
Hell yeah! Now we're cookin'. YSU, the school that had done next to nothing in basketball, was brought in. Why, exactly? They weren't anything in basketball. Their bell cow is football, something that didn't matter.
The reason is simple. Valparaiso said no, and Detroit blocked Oakland (with help from Loyola and Butler). At the time, Valparaiso's athletic director played the proud papa role as his son elevated to commissioner of the Mid-Continent Conference. Valpo was in a golden age - their best year, 1998, matched the Horizon League's best. For the MCC, it was a no-brainer. Go for Valpo. But proud papa wasn't going to leave the Mid-Con right after his own son became commissioner, and Valpo turned it down.
So Lecrone and the soon-to-be Horizon League, publicly embarrassed by a negative answer from a legitimate school, made a gut reaction and added Youngstown State, who added nothing.
The next seven years, before Valpo finally said yes, were great for Milwaukee. That was our first "golden age," hopefully the first of many. The Penguins, on the other hand, have never been higher than the five seed in the conference tournament, and they've never been in the upper-half of the conference tournament. One year, in 2005-06, the Panthers walloped them by 40, only to see their RPI drop the next morning from the right side to the wrong side of the bubble. It would have been better if we never played YSU at all.
It would have been better if the Horizon League never added them in the first place. But they had chances to rectify it.
Multiple times, both in the UWM Post and on PantherU, I've urged the Horizon League and its member institutions to push for the removal of Youngstown State. This year, they weren't such a drain, but each of the previous ten they did nothing to help, and even hurt. It says something that this season is easily the height of YSU basketball, yet they finished 16-15, lost in the second round of the conference tournament, and finished 176 in the RPI. That number, if you didn't know, is something Milwaukee has finished lower than exactly once since Youngstown joined the conference.
My words have been ignored forever by the Horizon League. YSU is never going to be good enough. Now it looks like Wright State may be circling the drain, back to the Biancardi years. UIC isn't sorted out, Loyola has the foundation in place but the mortar isn't dry, and Detroit's success will last as long as Ray Jr. is in school. There are good things going on; Valpo looks like they'll be very good next season. Green Bay has the core of what looks to be a great roster for the next two years. Cleveland State has some strong pieces to build around. But the conference as we know it is dead.
Butler's departure, in at least one way, is due to Lecrone adding a team just for the sake of adding a team. What would this conference be at nine members without the RPI drain of YSU? What if Detroit had not blocked Oakland continuously, and we were ten with them in? Oakland averages 75 in the RPI. The Horizon may sit in the 8-10 range instead of the 12-14 range. That goes a long way towards putting in a conference that Butler would want to stay in.
But no. Butler's gone, the Horizon League will drop to the 18-20 range, and we can just forget all at-large talk unless one of our schools goes ape all over a tough non-conference schedule.
You made your bed Lecrone, now sleep in it.