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.”
Thus, the death of the term mid-major appears to be at hand.