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Another year passes with little change in the MAC. And that's just fine.
Thinking big isn’t always the best tactic.
Joe Novak learned that much from afar. He was an assistant at Indiana during the 1986 when he watched Northern Illinois, where he had worked for three years, leave the MAC with aspirations of joining big-time college football.
“I don’t know what they were thinking or where they were going to go,” Novak told Athlon Sports in a recent interview.
What the Huskies were trying to do was parlay a move to the Big West into a bid for the Big Eight or Big 12. What Northern Illinois got was six losing seasons in 10 years as an independent and Big West member only to return to where it started.
Northern Illinois’ returned to the league in 1997 with Novak as coach, trumpeting his return with the slogan, “Back in the MAC with Novak.” That’s just about all Northern Illinois had to sell at the time. The Huskies’ hopes of major conference membership were ill-advised, and in the aftermath of the experiment, NIU went 3-30 during Novak’s first three seasons.
The best MACtion, Novak learned, may be inaction at least in terms of changing leagues. Once the program recovered under Novak, Northern Illinois, instead, settled on being one of the flagship programs in the MAC.
July 1 marks another year of conference realignment moves. Maryland and Rutgers become official in the Big Ten, and the ACC adds Louisville. Conference USA adds two teams to take the place of the three that will join the year-old American Athletic Conference.
Once again, though, the MAC is sitting out the game of musical chairs.
That’s not to say the MAC is a total outlier. Temple left before last season after five years as a football-only member, and UMass will follow suit next season.
But the core of the MAC — 10 teams in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana — has remained more or less stable since the ‘70s. Marshall and UCF dabbled here, but neither seemed to be a geographical or philosophical fit.
As conference affiliations change, the MAC has thrived in its stability.
In the last two seasons, the league has produced a BCS participant (Northern Illinois), a No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick (Central Michigan) and another top-five pick (Buffalo). Ratings for the MAC’s featured games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays late in the season aren’t out-performing the Big Ten, but they can top second- or third-tier Saturday games in major conferences.
"The best thing for that league is to stay status quo."
-former Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak
“I’m thankful we’ve been able to stay together, and because of it our conference has moved up in stature,” said Jim Schaus, Ohio’s athletics director since 2008. “By staying where we were and because other conferences have seen other members moving up, those conferences may have stepped back a little bit.”
Tuesday and Wednesday night games have been a staple of the MAC for several years. Wild offensive showcases between MAC teams have become the league’s signature. The #MACtion meme shows there’s national interest in the conference, even if it’s a niche.
At the same time, the American, Conference USA and perhaps even the Mountain West can’t say the same.
“We talk about branding here a lot,” Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien said. “It’s led to the culture of the MAC brand. At the same time, despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
The Big Ten and Big 12 may be unrealistic goals — as Northern Illinois learned — but MAC teams have rarely been in the conversation for movement in the next tier of conferences. The shared recruiting base and similar budgets can keep MAC teams competitive, but it likely makes them less of a target in realignment.
The top program in the MAC lineup in terms of revenue is Miami (Ohio) at $28.7 million, ranking 79th, according to USA Today (outgoing affiliate member UMass actually bring sin more at $30 million). On the other end is Ball State at $21.3 million, ranking 112nd.
In other words, $7.4 million in revenue separate the top and bottom teams in the MAC. More than $100 million separates Texas and Iowa State in the Big 12, and $74 million separates Oregon and Washington State in the Pac-12.
“Part of the reason we’ve stayed together is the commonality of the members in this conference,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.
MAC administrators also believe the new College Football Playoff may improve postseason opportunities for the league, specifically the one bowl guaranteed to the highest-ranked team in the “Group of Five” (the MAC, American, C-USA, Mountain West and Sun Belt).
Talk of autonomy among the five major conferences is sure to be a concern for the MAC and leagues of its ilk, but at least not outwardly for now.
“We are joined at the hip for the next decade,” Shaus said of the Group of Five and the power conferences.
The key for the MAC is to maintain its midweek presence.
The MAC’s contract with ESPN runs through 2016-17, but the two parties were expected to reopen talks a year ago. The $1 million deal is on the low end of broadcast contracts.
Even as more and more major programs and even the NFL have embraced the Thursday night primetime spot, the MAC is not concerned it will lose its foothold on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
"Despite the fact that the MAC is considered quote-unquote regional, it is a national conference.”
-Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien
“We’ve become their midweek franchise in November,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “We’ve embraced it, they’ve embraced it and I anticipate that continuing.”
Simply put, the tradeoff in terms of juggling player class schedules and the attendance hit of playing on a weeknight is not one leagues may be willing to embrace on a regular basis.
Central Michigan, for example, didn’t play a game between Oct. 19 and Nov. 6 to accommodate a Wednesday night game against Ball State. Ohio and Buffalo both played on three consecutive Tuesday nights in November.
“I absolutely would make that trade,” Tom Amstutz, Toledo’s coach from 2001-08, told Athlon. “Yes, you have to make adjustments and yes, you have to do things academically, but it was worth it. ... Whenever we were asked if we wanted to have a Tuesday night game, I always quickly said yes because I always though it would benefit our league, benefit our program and I knew our players wanted that opportunity.”
Between the familiarity of the lineup and the reliability of four or five MAC teams to be compelling in a single season, viewers on Tuesday or Wednesday nights know what to expect from a featured MAC matchup.
“The stability has allowed people to follow the MAC and know what they’re following,” said Ohio coach Frank Solich, the longest-tenured coach in the league.
As the college football landscape changes on a yearly basis, the MAC has found a way to turn stability into an asset.
Standing still in conference realignment, while the American, C-USA and Sun Belt have struggled to plant their flags, has been a gain for the MAC.
“The best thing for that league,” Novak said. “is to stay status quo.”