Despite a rivalry dating back nearly a century, MTSU and Western Kentucky will once again part ways as conference mates.
Next school year, MTSU will join Conference USA, departing the Sun Belt Conference and leaving chief rival WKU behind. It isn’t the first time the schools went separate ways with league affiliation. In 1982, WKU departed the Ohio Valley Conference, where MTSU remained a member until 2000.
In doubt again will be future scheduling of games between the schools in all sports, especially in men’s and women’s basketball.
But athletic directors at the schools are eager to continue scheduling each other in all sports. That’s especially so in basketball, even possibly going as far as to playing twice in the same season.
“We would like to do a home-and-home series with Western in the same year, particularly next year,” MTSU athletic director said Chris Massaro said Saturday prior to the Blue Raiders’ 72-53 win over WKU in front of a season-best 10,105 in attendance at Murphy Center.
On Sunday, MTSU’s Lady Raiders beat WKU 79-57 for their 11th win over the Lady Toppers. MTSU men and women will play WKU again on Saturday, March 2 in Bowling Green, Ky., in what could be the last regular-season basketball games between the schools, should future scheduling not get worked out.
“It’s such a good non-conference game,” said Massaro, who said he wouldn’t care which month – November or December – the teams would host the game at their campus, just as long as they get scheduled.
“They are too good of games not to play,” Massaro said. “It would help energize both fan bases with a big signature home game early on.”
WKU athletic director Todd Stewart agrees.
“I think it would be great to continue the basketball series for both men and women,” he said Saturday. “We are good for each other. The fans love the rivalry. In many ways, we measure ourselves against each other.
“It is all positive, in my opinion.”
While it appears certain the women’s teams will continue to schedule each other once a year and rotate the host site, the notion of playing two men’s games per season still has some discussion to go between the schools.
“Home-and-home non-conference games in the same season is such a unique situation,” Stewart said. “It certainly depends on the opponent, but Middle Tennessee would fit that. Schools like us struggle to get quality home games, so having Middle Tennessee on the home schedule every year would be attractive to our season-ticket holders.”
There has been discussion about playing the game annually in downtown Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, although both Massaro and Stewart admit to being lukewarm to that idea because of the importance of having each other come to their campus.
“I would hate to give up a home game with them,” Massaro said.
Stewart agreed: “I had rather play the game on campus. That would be much better for our students, and it would help to create a better atmosphere than playing at a 17,000-seat arena off campus.”
Over the years, the schools have aligned to host games at Bridgestone Arena in a doubleheader format against marquee opponents like Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Louisville and Memphis. Those games in downtown Nashville counted as part of the teams’ season-ticket package.
But earlier this season at Bridgestone Arena, the teams played on consecutive nights with MTSU playing Vanderbilt and WKU dueling Louisville.
Look for the schools to keep scheduling each other in baseball, possibly playing a pair of three-game weekend series at each school in the same season. They play their lone Sun Belt series this coming season March 15-17 in Bowling Green.
But scheduling football games between the schools will take some creativity and long-term planning, considering MTSU will have only four non-conference games when it moves to C-USA and prefers to schedule opponents years in advance.
“Football is a little bit trickier,” Massaro said. “Our schedule is filled out for about three or four years. But I always feel playing schools closer to you, particularly natural rivals, is always best.”
Like in other sports, Stewart wants to see MTSU and WKU play each year in football.
“I would like to do it in football,” he said. “In football, you have to be very creative to schedule quality non-conference opponents. Each of us would be that for the other.”
But who knows? One day, the schools could be aligned once again as conference mates, considering the fluidity of which league membership has become. Like MTSU, WKU has explored leaving the Sun Belt Conference, and would surely accept an invitation to Conference USA, should one come down the road.
In the meantime, it appears the rivalry will remain between MTSU and WKU in a variety of sports, even if they are no longer competing against each other for conference championships.
Each athletic director is wise in seeing that it stays that way.
Greg Pogue is host of The First Quarter on 102.5-FM The Game ESPN Radio Nashville. E-mail him at GregPogue@1025thegame.com.
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