A Valentine to the Valley

by Peter A. Coclanis

The Missouri Valley Conference has once again done well in the NCAA Tournament—its record is 3-1, as I write—and sports scribes have been busy talking and writing, once again, about what a tough “mid-major” conference it is. Once again, alas, one of Valley’s crown jewels—this time Creighton—is quitting the conference for the promise of a higher-profile conference, in this case, the reconstituted Big East. Very good basketball and unrequited love have been constant themes in the Valley’s hoops’ history. This little piece is not intended as a history of the MVC—aficionados already know where to find them—but a paean intended to introduce novices to the Valley and give the conference its due.

The Missouri Valley, which is concluding its 106th season of competition, is the second-oldest conference in Division I, and has long been considered one of the most progressive, particularly on matters of race: It was, for example, one of the first major conferences to recruit—and more importantly—to play large numbers of African Americans, one of the reasons for the league’s power in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, the Valley has also gone through many members over the years. In early decades, big-time schools such as Oklahoma, Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas State and, for a short time, even the University of Iowa were members of the conference (Iowa did not compete in men’s basketball), and Oklahoma State (A & M) didn’t leave until 1957. Another of today’s celebrated mid-majors, Butler, also was a member of the Valley for a brief time in the early 1930s.

Since the 1950s, various schools with basketball histories have come and gone—Houston and New Mexico State, for example—and the conference line-up in the late 1960s constitutes a who’s who of hoops’ powers. In ‘69-70—when I was a freshman at Drake, the oldest member of the conference—here’s the roster of schools in the league: Bradley, Cincinnati, Drake, Louisville, Memphis State, North Texas State, Saint Louis University, Tulsa and Wichita State. Drake won the league crown that year and advanced to what we would now call the Elite 8 before losing to New Mexico State (which joined the Valley the next year), the eventual runner-up to UCLA for the NCAA title. In the previous year (‘68-69), the Valley fared even better, with Drake crushing Charlie Scott-led UNC (my current employer!) 104-84 in the third-place game, after barely losing to NCAA champion UCLA, anchored by Lew Alcindor, 85-82 in the semi-finals. John Wooden later said that, “Drake gave as much trouble—maybe more—than any team we’ve ever played in the Tournaments.”

The mid-1950s through the early 1970s constituted the Valley’s heyday. Hospitable to African American athletes earlier than were many other conferences, the league was full of great players during that period: Every team had them. There was the nonpareil, Oscar Robertson, of course, but other NBA greats such as Chet Walker and Wes Unseld competed in the Valley during this period as did great college players such as Dave Stallworth, Paul Hogue, Ron Bonham, Joe Allen, Butch Beard, Bob Netolicky, Willie Wise, Larry Finch, Junior Bridgeman, and now forgotten stars such as big guard/small forward Harry Rogers (St. Louis U), Willie McCarter (Drake), and point guard “Little” Joe Hamilton (North Texas State). And with the reshuffling of conference members in the 1970s, we can add to the roster of Valley greats luminaries such as Maurice Cheeks and a guy named Larry Bird.

The Valley’s great basketball success and relatively low national profile made some of its premier powers attractive to other conferences in the 1970s, and three of its best assets—Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis State departed for brighter lights beginning in ‘70-71. Still, the Valley has continued to compete well nationally over the years by adding schools such as Indiana State, Creighton, Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Evansville. Now it’s time to say good-bye to Creighton, a member of the conference off and on since 1928 and continuously since 1976. Creighton is a great school and I wish it luck in the Big East. Don’t cry for the Valley, however—it will survive. And any conference with an all-time “starting five”—voted in during the conference’s centennial celebration in ’06-07—consisting of Larry Bird, Hersey Hawkins, Xavier McDaniel, Ed Macauley and Oscar Robertson—deserves to.

Peter A. Coclanis (Drake ’73) is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.