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The Cinderella Code, Part 4: The Valley of Elah

Wichita State’s rise and the formula behind the mid-major Final Four run

Louisville v Wichita State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Here is Part 4 of “The Cinderella Code:”


In 1886, when Rev. Joseph Homer Parker was putting together plans for the establishment of a new college, he chose a hill north of the Arkansas River Valley overlooking a booming cowtown along the Chisholm Trail. The location was important, as Parker’s vision was to give the members of his Plymouth Congregational Church and the abundance of local wheat farmers a cheaper alternative for higher education. And this was an excellent site. One early settler of the region had called it a “fair mount.”

The area surrounding the hill Parker chose bears no resemblance to the Valley of Elah, where David met Goliath to do battle in the 11th century BCE. That region of ancient Palestine was mountainous. The terrain there forced a stand-off, with the Philistine army camped on the southern ridge staring at the Israelite army camped on the northern ridge, neither wanting to descend into the valley and give up the advantage of high ground. That was the reason the Philistines sent Goliath down as their representative. The rest is history. Parker’s hill, on the other hand, was surrounded by miles of flat farming land. Yet just like Elah, that specific land and the basketball courts that would one day be built on it became the perfect place to defeat a giant.

In 1895 the doors were opened for the first 30 students to attend classes at Fairmount College. In matching with the Christian values of its founder and the salt-of-the-earth nature of its students, the earliest recorded slogan for the school was “Fairmount builds character.

Athletics at Fairmount were said to have begun on the second day of class, when a group of male students met under a tree to discuss forming a football team. It wasn’t long before the school formed a rivalry in the sport with Chilocco Indian School, a Native American agricultural school located just south of Fairmount. In 1904, one of the Fairmount football team’s student managers was making a sign to advertise the game between Fairmount and Chilocco when he encountered a problem. Their opponent was known as the Chilocco Indians, but his school didn’t have a mascot. What would they be called?

There was really only one choice. Fairmount was a commuter school, with most students finding work harvesting, or “shocking,” wheat and dropping in and out of class whenever they had enough money. Football games were played on a flattened wheat field. So he gave the team the nickname “Wheatshockers.”

The school didn’t officially recognize the mascot until after World War II, when a marine veteran and student Wilbur Elsea won a competition to design a mascot for the school and created an animated bundle of wheat named “WuShock.” The nickname was shortened to “Shockers.” To pay homage to the toughness of those local farmers, Elsea said “the school needed a mascot who gave a tough impression, with a serious, no-nonsense scowl.” By then, Fairmount College had begun accepting public money, and in 1963 the Kansas legislature approved it as a state university. Wichita State University was born.

Unbeknownst to Rev. Parker, three years after the founding of Fairmount College and about 160 miles to the northeast, the University of Kansas hired a physical education teacher. His name was Dr. James Naismith. He had created a new game called “basket ball” at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts that was exploding in popularity. The game soon caught on at nearby Fairmount, and by 1906 the Wheatshockers were playing basket ball games in the basement of Fairmount Hall.

Yet basketball was still an afterthought at the school. Fairmount was still very much known for football. A year prior, the school made history by hosting the first nighttime football game west of the Mississippi River. In the same season, a game between Fairmount and Washburn College was the first to experiment with using a forward pass and 10 yards as the distance needed for first downs. If Fairmount was known as anything, it was as a football school.

The scales began to flip in the middle of the 20th century, when the basketball team for the newly christened Wichita State reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1964. The following season, they made it all the way to the Final Four. By starting five players who hailed from the state of Kansas and embodied the blue-collar attitude and toughness local residents took so much pride in, the basketball team began to win over the community. Wichita was becoming a basketball town.

Then tragedy struck. In 1970 a plane carrying half of the Wichita State football team crashed on its way to a game at Utah State, killing 31 of the 40 people on board including 14 football players. The incident rocked the program, and it never recovered. By the 1986 season, attendance at football games had dwindled to less than 10,000 fans per game, the second-lowest number since the opening of the stadium, and expenses for the year had outpaced revenue by $839,000. After the season, Wichita State President Warren Armstrong announced the school would be indefinitely suspending its football program.

It hasn’t returned.

Anyone who is familiar with college athletics knows losing a football program is a devastating blow. A 2017 study by Business Insider combed through the average revenue of all 127 schools that participate in football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, those schools eligible to play for a national championship, in order to determine just how much schools rely on their football teams to generate money.

The results are startling. The football programs at these schools brought in an average of $31.9 million, while every other sport combined to bring in an average of $31.7 million. Men’s basketball came in at around $8 million, almost four times less profitable. At the University of Texas, the highest earning school in the country from athletics with a ridiculous $182 million coming in per year, 70 percent of its revenue comes from the football program. That’s over $127 million. Simply put, football is a college athletics department’s cash cow.

In order to have a successful basketball team, a school needs one thing more than any other: money. Between 2010 and 2015, three of the five national champions in basketball ranked one, two, or three in the entire country in spending on its basketball program. Therefore one expects prospective basketball programs, those that might want to make a push to reach the Final Four, would pop up at big-time football schools. They are the ones with money.

In truth, there isn’t a single university in the country that would choose not having a profitable football program over having one. But the operative word there is “profitable.” One USA Today study reports that while all 50 of the public universities participating in “power conferences” in football in 2013-2014 were self-sustaining, meaning the revenue they generated covers the cost of being competitive, just three FBS schools outside of those leagues hit the mark. In most cases, this cash flow is independent of wins and losses. Without the aid of lucrative television right’s deals, which are set up on a conference-by-conference basis, many smaller schools need student fees and even taxpayer money to prop up its football programs.

That’s the position Wichita State found itself in when it cancelled football in 1986, and in subsequent attempts to restart the program. It learned in 1992 the football stadium needed $24 million in renovations. Four years later a report found it would take $11 million to restart the football program, and start up the three corresponding female sports programs needed to comply with Title IX regulations. Each time the issue has risen, it was clear football wasn’t worth the price tag.

The thing is, the city of Wichita had money. An oil boom in the early 20th century gave way to a huge manufacturing industry in the city, particularly in air travel. Cessna Aircraft Company was founded and headquartered in the city, as well as Learjet’s parent company Bombardier, Boeing’s chief subassembly supplier Spirit AeroSystems, and over 50 other aviation businesses.

The city is also home to Charles and David Koch, who founded and still operate Koch Industries, the second biggest privately owned company in the United States. Each brother hovers around the top 10 of any richest people in the world list with a current net worth of around $60 billion. These are the type of guys who could spend Wichita State into becoming a national football powerhouse. But they didn’t. They are smart business people, and they knew football wasn’t a sound investment. It wasn’t until 1999 that Jim Schaus gave them one.

When Schaus was hired as Wichita State’s athletic director, the Shockers’ basketball team was coming off a 12-17 season in which they finished dead last in the Missouri Valley Conference. That simply wasn’t acceptable for Schaus, who prioritized growing the basketball program above all else.

“I believed it was best to focus on the areas that you wanted to be great at the most,” he said. “The primary focus was to get men’s basketball back to a high level. The thought was, if we can do that, we’ll be able to generate the resources that are necessary to run the rest of the program.”

Cincinnati v Wichita State Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Schaus knew what he wanted to do, and he knew how to do it. His first goal was a new basketball facility, and $25 million later the state-of-the-art Charles Koch Arena opened in 2003. The name is no coincidence. As corporate money from local businesses flowed in, Schaus’ next push was for increased season ticket holders to fill the new arena. The Shockers have averaged better than 10,000 fans at every home basketball game since. It’s easy to see why the school chose to support basketball. The same amount of money needed to make the football stadium passable had made the basketball arena one of the best in the entire country, and within three years the school had higher average basketball attendance for 15 or more home basketball games per year than they would get for a handful of football home games in a season.

Success on the court soon followed. Under head coach Mark Turgeon the Shockers made it to the Sweet 16 in 2006, the farthest they had advanced in 25 years. Schaus upped the ante next by offering priority seating and parking at basketball games to season ticket holders for premium prices, and revenues continued to climb. Gregg Marshall was hired as head coach in 2007, and within three seasons he had won 25 games and reached the National Invitational Tournament, the second-most prestigious postseason event in college basketball. In his fourth season the Shockers won 29 games and were champions of the NIT. At that point they hardly even resembled a mid-major.

With the help of a $4.6 million basketball budget that dwarfed the Missouri Valley competition, the Shockers flew private jets to every road game.

“That is a great benefit,” Marshall said, knowing very few mid-major programs in the country could boast the same luxury. “Our players don’t understand how good they have it, to go from bus to private plane to bus and in a couple hours be in our hotel.”

It gave the team great flexibility in its scheduling. Marshall also used the planes to recruit around the world, allowing him to find under-recruited talents from Canada, the Bahamas, Nigeria, New York, Texas, Nevada, Georgia, Illinois, and Minnesota in addition to a few from Kansas. By the time the 2012-13 season rolled around, Wichita State was less of a miraculous underdog and more of a sleeping giant ready to make its presence known on the national stage.

The conclusion is simple. Schools like Wichita State could never hope to compete with bigger schools at every single sport, especially not at the high stakes sport of football. Football is a sport for Goliaths. By accepting it was a David, the school could pour all of its money into men’s basketball, a sport where the barrier to entry is four times less expensive. It could compete on a more advantageous field of play. Basketball is a mid-major’s Valley of Elah. It’s the perfect place to slay a foe like Goliath.

The transformation that happened on a hill above the wheat fields of central Kansas might seem like an outlier. Wichita State basketball would not be where it is today if it were not located near Wichita, which has grown into the 50th-largest city in the United States and became the type of place where people like the Koch brothers live. The team would not be cruising around in private jets if not for the city’s thriving aerospace industry and the school’s elite aerospace engineering program. And were it not for a devastating accident from one of those planes leading to the abolishment of a football program, they never would’ve secured the primary focus and funds of their athletic director needed to become a national power. The stars seemed to have aligned for them. Until you take a look at our other mid-majors who made the Final Four and find some startling similarities.

Butler practically had its own Jim Schaus clone. Geoffrey Bannister, president of Butler from 1988 to 2000, masterminded a plan to pump money into the men’s basketball program in order to use it as a marketing tool for the entire school. After all, Butler’s football team was Division II at the time and wasn’t making any money (they’ve since moved up to FCS, still a step below major college football and still not profitable). He presented a 25-page business blueprint focused around the sport in 1990, when the Bulldogs had posted 13 losing seasons in 16 years. Though exact numbers were not made public, budgets skyrocketed and Butler began winning. They’ve had winning records in 26 of the last 28 seasons. Momentum built as sponsorships came in from businesses and donors in nearby Indianapolis, the nation’s 15th-biggest city.

George Mason was the largest university in the state of Virginia in 2006, nearing 30,000 students. From an enrollment standpoint, the school was roughly the same size as the other three schools in the 2006 Final Four. Any athletic director’s eyes light up thinking about all those student fees.

The school also sits just 20 miles outside of Washington D.C., the 21st-biggest city in the United States. The big city provided fertile recruiting territory, and plenty of prospects that might fall through the cracks for bigger programs. That’s how the Patriots were able to snag Will Thomas, the forward who went 7-0 in his high school career against Rudy Gay in the city’s Catholic league. All five starters for George Mason in the Final Four were from the area.

Despite its size, the school has never had a varsity football team.

“Cost is the biggest issue,” said Tom O’Connor, athletic director and assistant vice president at the school. “It is very costly to be successful in a spectator sport like football.”

The same goes for VCU. There’s a saying that has been going around on its campus for decades. “VCU Rams Football, Still Undefeated.” T-shirts are sold in the bookstore with the slogan across the chest. It’s an inside joke, because the school has never had a football team. In case you’re wondering, Virginia Commonwealth is practically in downtown Richmond, Virginia, the 98th-largest city in the country.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola University Celebration Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, Loyola University Chicago is a perfect test case in basketball’s return on investment, even as the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened in recent years. Their opponent in the 2018 Final Four was Michigan. Loyola’s total athletics budget is $13.8 million. Michigan’s is $153.2 million, over 11 times more. But when it comes strictly to basketball, the Ramblers spend close to $3 million compared to just under $17 million for the Wolverines. It’s still a significant disparity, but when Loyola shut down its football team in 1929 due to the stock market crash, it unknowingly doubled its chances at competing. It goes without saying the school, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, is only about 10 miles north of downtown Chicago, the nation’s third-biggest city.

In the end, not being able to support a football team is a desirable disadvantage. It allows the playing field in college basketball to be leveled. It allows the battles in NCAA Tournaments to be fought in the Valley of Elah.

We know what happens there.

The ultimate test of this formula is the 2013 NCAA Tournament itself. To college basketball analysts, Wichita State was a relatively unknown No. 9 seed from a mid-major conference. They were huge underdogs. But according to the money, the run was much less of a surprise.

The Shockers’ biggest upset on this scale was actually their first-round game over No. 8 seed Pittsburgh, and even then, their $4.6 million in basketball expenses was competitive with the $7.3 million Pittsburgh spent. No. 1 Gonzaga in the next round wasn’t too scary at $6.1 million (it bears mentioning here that Gonzaga built itself from a mid-major into a powerhouse through the exact same formula shown above), and in the Sweet 16 Wichita State actually doubled the spending of surprise opponent La Salle’s ($2.0 million).

Even in the Elite Eight, they could go toe-to-toe with No. 2 seed Ohio State and its $5.96 million without blinking. It wasn’t until its Final Four game with Louisville that their budget was dwarfed by the $15.5 million the Cardinals’ athletic department spent on the sport. Unsurprisingly, that’s where the run ended.

Where do you find a mid-major program capable of sending a team to the Final Four? The formula is actually pretty simple:

Close proximity to one of the nation’s top 100 biggest cities

+

Intentional funding from the athletic department

-

A money-sucking football program

=

Final Four Potential