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Perspective: by Jerry Pyle
It was a pretty good week for Cobber sports. The football team won a thrilling homecoming game over Gustavus. The men's cross country team won a meet. The men's soccer team had an undefeated week. And the women golfers won a tourney by beating St. Thomas again.
Things around the league are heating up for a series of fall MIAC championships that will be decided in the next several weeks. Fifty-some guys will go after an MIAC men's golf title on October 12-13. The men's and women's soccer champions will be known in a few weeks. The league's cross country champions will be crowned on Oct. 27th. MIAC volleyball teams will gather for their title tourney Nov. 2-3. And the football race, which looks to be going down to the wire, will probably be decided in the Metrodome Nov. 9th and 10th.
All the fall sports teams around the 13-member Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) are trying to win league titles and aren't thinking a lot about NCAA playoffs.
While much of the rest of intercollegiate sports is obsessed with those twin Holy Grails, national championships and big TV dollars, the MIAC has preserved a valuable but fading tradition: Win the league championship. Anything else that follows is just gravy.
At least in the MIAC, winning a league title is still a pretty big deal.
The MIAC is a 70-year old conference that has gone through relatively few changes over the years. It has managed to maintain itself as a community of colleges with pretty-common values and aspirations for its student/athletes. It is made up of Minnesota private colleges with semi-divergent roots (Catholic, Protestant and Carleton) but a shared commitment to doing sports in a way that allows for tradition-rich rivalries, enduring mutual respect and, often, the development of deep friendships between competitors. Hot-shot new coaches who come in with different priorities and no respect for the league's values can last for a little while. But then they are gone.
Winning an MIAC title is more than just a stepping stone to an NCAA Division III playoff berth or a Division II job. It's being the best that year among colleagues who share a certain reverence for the league's athletic traditions.
Being crowned MIAC Champion is fulfilling for the same reasons that winning your bowling league or town softball league is so cherished. You win it against people you know well, not strangers. You compete with the same set of rules. You have your inside jokes and foibles, real or imagined, to tease each other about and argue over. And you have the reassuring knowledge that next year you'll compete again and the result may well be different.
The growth in recent decades of NCAA playoffs in nearly every imaginable sport has obviously had its semi-positive aspects, like exposure for colleges and athletes, TV money, a day in the national spotlight for minor sports and small-college teams, and a chance for athletes to settle on the playing field what used to be settled only by sports writers: "Who's No. 1?"
But, in the process, the value of being a league champion has been diminished. Remember who won the Big Ten basketball title last year? Or is it now the Big Eleven? Is Arkansas in the Southeast or the Southwest conference? Is Georgetown in a league? Does Notre Dame, an independent, really have a forty-million dollar TV contract? You want us to play Bowling Green on Thursday night? No problem, we'll be there. So what if we finished fifth in the ACC. We still got a playoff bid.
Maybe it's because we just haven't been tempted, but it's not like that in the MIAC. When a team in the MIAC wins a league title, the season is over. Sure, the winners, and, in some sports even the top three, get invitations to the NCAA playoffs. But the season is over as far as the rest of the league is concerned.
"Congratulations. Call me if you make it to the championship game. I'm going recruiting and we'll beat you next year."
Whether you got to the second or the third round of the NCAA playoffs will not be remembered. The fact that you won the MIAC title is what will be remembered.
Not that MIAC teams do poorly in NCAA playoffs and tournaments. Quite the contrary. And that, in part, enhances the focus on winning the league title. If you are an MIAC Champion you are clearly one of the best teams in the NCAA's 300-member, non-scholarship Division III.
Last year St. John's won the MIAC football title and made it to the NCAA semi-final game. Augsburg won the MIAC wrestling title and finished 2nd in the national tournament. St. Thomas won the men's and women's MIAC cross country titles and both teams finished 4th at the NCAA National Championships.
Gustavus won the MIAC men's golf title and finished 2nd at the NCAA. The Gusties' women's tennis and gymnastics teams won NCAA titles. The Lady Cobbers were one of three MIAC teams to make the 32-team NCAA women's basketball tournament and advanced to the final eight before losing. Concordia's Kris Kuehl, who won the NCAA discus crown, was one of six MIAC track athletes to win national championships. St. Thomas won the MIAC hockey title and finished 5th in the NCAA... You get the idea.
However, in the MIAC, these accomplishments are still just gravy, almost trivia questions. The MIAC title is, for most, still the big prize. MIAC contests are simply more interesting than a St. John's-Cal. State Whatever playoff game.
If you doubt this, go to a St. John's-Concordia football game, or a Johnnie-Tommie basketball game, or a St.
Olaf-Carleton-Concordia women's cross country meet, or a St. Olaf-Carleton anything contest, or a Macalester-St.
Mary's women's soccer match, or a Concordia-St. Ben's women's basketball game. See a men's basketball game at Hamline. Or, now, Bethel football.
In the MIAC you'll find athletes playing with passion for a title that matters, while having the whole thing in pretty good perspective most of the time. That makes for a lot of pretty good weeks in both the MIAC and Cobberville.
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