There are three things certain in life: Death, Taxes, and the MAC Surviving Conference Realignment. The key to the MAC’s unprecedented level of stability: Being just weak enough that the P5 has no interest in poaching any of their membership, while being strong enough to fend off raids from G5 conferences.
Founded in 1946 the MAC has endured for so long that it is older than the Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, and even the Ivy League. If you count the AAC as being founded in 2013 when it emerged from the ashes of the old Big East, the MAC is older (72 years) than all of its fellow G5 football conferences combined (63 years). Sure that sounds impressive but remember:
C-USA started basketball in 1995 and football in 1996. But by 2005 the conference had lost nine of its first fifteen members. C-USA stabilized as a twelve team conference after 2005. But in the following decade the conference saw seven more members withdraw. With the recent hiatus of UAB football, just four of C-USA’s fourteen football members have had continual membership in the sport since 2005. The MWC faired better, but it still lost a third of its first nine members barely a decade after its founding in 1999. Meanwhile the AAC is at best a conference that saw 19 different members leave since 2003. At worst it is a conference that has been so devastated in conference realignment, it struggles to remind people that it has conference history prior to 2013. The Sun Belt (the youngest of the G5) has fared far better than the rest, but the conference has retained only four of its charter football members since its first season of college football in 2001.
While the MAC’s fellow G5 conferences are all on 2.0 or 3.0 versions of themselves who hardly resemble how they looked a decade prior, the MAC is effectively the same conference today as it was at any point in the past. Of the MAC’s twelve current members, six of them have been in the conference since the early 1950s and four more since the 1970s. But that’s not meant to imply things have been perfect for the MAC. The conference has plenty of conference realignment battle scars throughout its history.
The MAC suffered disaster from the start when it lost four of its five charter members in its first decade. The MAC lost three institutions who lacked interest in becoming a major-level football schools while also antagonizing the University of Cincinnati in an effort to get the Bearcats to withdraw from the conference. In 1953 the MAC succeeded in doing exactly that when Cincinnati departed.
In spite of the early instability, for the next 25 years the conference operated smoothly with only one minor hiccup. In the late 1960s Marshall was found guilty of more than 140 NCAA violations and placed on probation. The MAC took advantage of the incident to cut some dead weight by expelling the Thundering Herd after the 1968 season. In doing so the MAC cut loose a member with a football program that had one of the worst stadiums in Division I, and hadn’t won a football game in the last two seasons.
Then came the 1980s which brought a series of events the MAC has done remarkably well forgetting they ever happened. The first crisis arose in December of 1981 when eight members of the MAC were among the 39 schools purged out of FBS. The MAC became an FCS conference for the 1982 season with two FBS members. The eight relegated MAC schools were able to fight their way back to FBS after only one year in a feat that only one other purged school (Cincinnati) was able to accomplish. The MAC played the 1983 season as an FBS conference thanks to six of its ten members meeting the FBS requirements. NCAA rules at the time allowed an entire conference to qualify for FBS status if a majority of its members qualified. But in the summer of 1984 one of its six FBS-compliant members (Western Michigan) failed to qualify for FBS status. This meant the MAC was once again going to be relegated down to FCS. The MAC realized they could avoid another relegation if they simply kicked out one of the non-compliant members. The MAC as a nine-team conference would thus have a majority of its members meeting FBS standards and the entire conference would retain FBS status.
The MAC then voted to amend its constitution which prevented the conference from expelling an institution in good standing. After rejecting an ultimatum demanding they either disband their football program or withdraw their football team from the conference, the MAC officially expelled Eastern Michigan. The NCAA was not pleased with the result. The rule allowing for an entire conference to qualify for FBS if a majority of their members met FBS standards was intended to discourage conference realignment and stabilize conferences. In the case of Eastern Michigan it had done the exact opposite. The NCAA decided to “reinterpret” the rule that dictated Western Michigan would not be in compliance with FBS standards. Eastern Michigan’s expulsion was reversed after a month.
In 1986 the MAC faced its third and final crisis of the 1980s. Northern Illinois (NIU) decided to leave the MAC after being in the conference for only a decade. The Huskies felt they had outgrown the MAC and the conference had become detrimental to their brand. They believed NIU was more comparable to major public schools such as Kansas and West Virginia than Central Michigan and Kent State. The Huskies saw continued association with the MAC created an image problem for them. The Huskies reasoned that without the MAC holding them back the institution would excel athletically as a football independent and the school had banked on their ability to attract high profile independents to fill their football schedule instead. It was a decision that NIU Sports Information Director Mike Korcek would call “delusional.”
Things went sour for NIU almost immediately when the Missouri Valley denied the Huskies basketball membership. This forced NIU into the untenable position of being a basketball independent with no autobid for the NCAA basketball tournament to compete for. NIU basketball coach John McDougal was openly critical of the move, which played a role in his firing that very same season. Future NBA first round pick Kenny Battle transferred to Illinois and led the Fighting Illini to a Final Four.
On the football side things were even worse. In 1989 NIU went 9-2 but was left without a bowl bid as they didn’t have a conference tie in. Meanwhile NIU’s decision to become an independent could not have come at the worst possible time. NIU became a true independent right as the traditional independence model started falling apart. An exodus of independents joined conferences in the early 1990s left the Huskies crippled when it came to filling out their athletic schedules. NIU had to settle for the Horizon League in basketball and the Big West in football. The Huskies were now in a football conference with members in Louisiana, Arkansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, and California. By then NIU realized they had made a terrible mistake. Northern Illinois was forced to crawl back to the MAC and beg to be let back in. The MAC obliged and a now humbled NIU reentered the conferenced with its pride swallowed and ego bruised.
The MAC did not endure the realignment chaos of the 2000s without being impacted as well. The MAC would ultimately lose four schools. While their fellow G5 conferences lost their strongest and most tenured members, the MAC avoided such a calamity. The only schools the MAC lost were recent additions who could be chalked up as failed experiments that simply did not work out. Marshall joined in 1997 and left after the 2004 season. UCF joined in 2002 and left the same year as Marshall. Temple enjoyed a five year stint from 2007 to 2011 and UMass joined in 2012 only to be pushed out by the MAC four years later.
Of the four schools the MAC lost, all except Marshall were geographic outliers who did not have full-member status. In the end the MAC came out ahead in conference realignment simply by ending up no worse than how they originally started out. Meanwhile their fellow G5 conferences each suffered devastating raids that irrevocably harmed each of them.
Nowhere was it more apparent as to the MAC’s success in conference realignment than with the case of Marshall. The Thundering Herd left the MAC looking for a bigger payday. At the time it made sense for Marshall. C-USA distributed a tenfold in television revenue to each school than the MAC. But when realignment was all said and done it was the MAC who now distributes four times as much television revenue per school than C-USA. And the MAC does so in a conference that requires a significantly smaller travel budget and earned an NY6 bid before C-USA did.
The MAC has emphasized practicality in an era where the G5 increasingly adapts less and less practical conference footprints. Nine of the MAC’s twelve members reside in Ohio and Michigan. The MAC was burned so badly with the short tenures of UMass, Temple, UCF, and Marshall that the conference appears to be effectively done with any talk of expansion.
And in the end conference realignment is not the MAC’s problem. When the Big 12 considered expansion in 2016, ten of the AAC’s twelve members publicly expressed interest in membership. The MWC saw four members do the same. Northern Illinois was the only MAC institution to chase a Big 12 invite proving that in conference realignment, some things never change. When the next round of conference realignment comes, (and that’s a “when” not “if”) it is all but guaranteed that it will come at the expense of the other G5 conferences. When that happens the MAC will be sitting on the sidelines knowing it is protected due to its history, geographical cohesion, and lack of P5 expansion candidates.
This has allowed the MAC to survive where so many other conferences have failed. In the FBS era alone the MAC has outlasted eight different conferences. Three conferences were relegated down to FCS (Southland, SoCon, and Ivy Leage). Three conferences dropped football (Missouri Valley, Big West, and WAC). And two conferences formally disbanded to create a new conference (Big Eight and SWC). If you count the Big East as a disbanded football conference and the SWAC being the only Division I conference kept out of FBS when it was first created, then the total increases to ten conferences the MAC has outlasted in the FBS era.
The MAC does not live in fear over the Big 12 picking the best of its lot. The MAC is geographically isolated and produces just enough television revenue to keep a rival G5 conference from poaching. The MAC has to worry about losing only NIU and maybe Buffalo. With its Northeast location and AAU status the Bulls will always be a potential flight risk. That is the MAC’s worst case scenario and yet it involves the conference losing its two most recently added members and most geographically isolated institutions. The MAC’s core will be still be safe ensuring a conference that will continue to prosper for the foreseeable future. Yet Buffalo and NIU will likely never leave as the MAC is their lifeboat. For each MAC school they know there is no better option but to remain in the conference. A lesson each institution learned from watching what happened to those who aligned against the MAC.