By Paul Suellentrop
Consider Friday a reset of Wichita State’s membership in the American Athletic Conference.
It looked much like the day in April 2017 when Wichita State celebrated joining the American after 72 years in the Missouri Valley Conference. The university president (John Bardo in 2017; Rick Muma now) spoke, cheerleaders and WuShock added spirit. Fans and coaches in the audience looked at an exciting future and wondered how it might unfold.
Wichita State introduced Kevin Saal as director of athletics in the Koch Arena atrium on Friday, two days after announcing his hiring. His job is to take five years of information accumulated as a member of the AAC, weigh the circumstances, add in the changes In college athletics, and guide the Shockers forward in the conference.
He is the key transitional figure for Wichita State athletics in a time of monumental change at the university, in the conference and NCAA athletics.
“We can all define where we want to be – we can say we want to have championship-level programs,” Saal said. “What does that mean? Until you’re able to develop a scale, understand where you are, it starts with a deep dive into every detail, every piece of data you can get that relates to how our sport programs sit, relatively speaking, to our peers in the American.”
Saal, 44, will do that deep dive into budgets, resources, fund-raising, facilities, staff, history, expectations, and competition over the coming months. He arrives after the budget-wrecking pandemic challenges from 2020-21, and in the middle of the transfer portal and name, image, and likeness issues.
Everyone he meets will want to talk about men’s basketball. Many will offer an opinion on some aspect of the program. He welcomes those conversations as part of his duties to be transparent and accessible, make friends and listen to stories about why the Shockers are important.
Saal did, according to people who talked with him over recent weeks, substantial homework to understand what Shocker fans already know: The past five years provided plenty of highlights, exposure and a sense of competition that made the conference move popular with fans.
That time span also showed that the American was indeed a step up in almost all competitive ways and taxed budgets in ways the MVC did not, especially for travel and recruiting. Wichita State is adjusting to competing with schools who went all-in on funding football and other sports and facilities to lure the Big 12. It is also competing with schools in bigger cities and with bigger enrollments, schools with national-level programs in a variety of sports and schools with warmer weather.
Shocker Nation, please help us in welcoming Kevin and Jennifer Saal to Wichita! Kevin was named this week as the new #WichitaState director of athletics. We’re thrilled to have you and your family here! #watchus pic.twitter.com/T19lbzPLma
— Wichita State (@WichitaState) June 17, 2022
Wichita State had most of those advantages in the MVC – fan support, budget, city, history, location, and weather to boost those outdoor sports. Those assets still exist, but other schools are now on equal or better footing.
His description of the task is to get Wichita State’s resources into the best American neighborhood. The Shockers don’t, he explained, need to live in the nicest house. They do need to be in the neighborhood.
“We can out-perform resources,” he said. “We can develop a plan for closing gaps. We can develop a comprehensive facilities master plan to engage our coaches and student-athletes to learn what is needed, what is missing from a player-development perspective and from a recruiting perspective. When you accomplish those two areas, you’ve got a really good sense for what that pathway looks like.”
From some perspectives, Wichita State knows that neighborhood.
In men’s basketball, the Shockers won the 2021 conference title and finished second in the 2018. It played in two NCAA Tournaments (and had a shot at a third in 2020), plus an NIT as an American member. It is on a streak of 13 winning seasons.
Volleyball won the 2017 conference title. Women’s cross country won the 2018 title. Softball won the 2021 regular-season and tournament titles. Men’s track and field won the 2022 outdoor championship.
There is enough success to know it’s possible. Off the court, he mentioned the athletic department’s streak of 34 semesters with a grade-point average of 3.0 or better.
Saal wants more consistent success at the top of the conference standings. He views American championships as the first step toward NCAA bids. He wants Wichita State in the top 100 of the Learfield Directors’ Cup all-sports standings (Wichita State finished 174 in 2020-21).
He doesn’t need to look far to see when Wichita State had that kind of success as the MVC’s dominant all-sports school. Friday’s news conference happened a few feet from a trophy case stuffed with MVC trophies signing success in all 15 sports.
“Decades of success,” Saal said.
Many of those coaches who won those MVC titles remain, as do facilities and infrastructure. Some of those facilities – most notably softball and the never-ending needs of basketball – need updating. Resource gaps, as Saal said, between Wichita State and its rivals may need filling. While prominent AAC members Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are leaving for the Big 12, significant spenders such as Memphis and SMU remain and many of the six additions bring their own strengths to the conference.
“Goal No. 1 is positioning ourselves to win American Athletic Conference championships,” Saal said. “We have to understand where we are.”
Where Wichita State finds itself in 2022 is dramatically different from 2017 in the athletic facilities and across campus.
While the athletic department grappled with its new conference, the university boosted enrollment past 16,000 and expanded the Innovation Campus. It did so while working under two interim presidents, former president Jay Golden and, since May 2021, Muma. Add in COVID-19’s stress and the departure of basketball coach Gregg Marshall and it’s been a tumultuous, exhausting time.
Saal’s arrival signals a time to review the past success and failures and reset what is needed after five years in the American.
He comes to Wichita State as a native Kansan (from Manhattan) who worked at schools (Kentucky and Murray State) where basketball is the premier sport. He knows the power of basketball in Kansas and at Wichita State. He also worked at Kansas State, attended Arkansas and TCU, and earned a master’s degree in athletics administration from Kansas.
“You look at the programs that are in this state and it’s a long-standing history and tradition,” he said. “Wichita State is an integral part of that history and tradition. When you’re successful, you crave more success.”
That success, in Saal’s plan, comes with understanding where Wichita State is. Then he can help it get where it wants to go.
Paul Suellentrop covers Wichita State Athletics and the American Athletic Conference for university Strategic Communications. Story suggestion? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.