CARBONDALE — When he drove through St. Louis for the first time 30 years ago, Doug Elgin wasn't sure he was going to make it in the Midwest.
A Maryland native, Elgin had accepted an offer from the Missouri Valley Conference to be its new commissioner. He'd spent the last five years in Tampa, Florida, as an assistant commissioner in the Sun Belt Conference under Vic Bubas, a former Duke men's basketball coach that is now in the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
"The first time I drove downtown, and I was thinking, because I left Tampa, which was more of a suburban area, sprawl, and going to a parking garage, and I remember thinking to myself 'I don't know if I can do this,'" Elgin said. "It seems pretty easy now. We've got a parking lot of our own. I never thought I'd be in any job for more than five years."
Elgin, now in his 30th year leading the MVC, is the longest-tenured Division I conference commissioner in the country (he is days ahead of Richard Ensor of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MEAC), who started in August of 1988). He oversaw taking women's athletics from the Gateway Conference under the Valley umbrella in 1992, moving the signature men's basketball tournament to a neutral site in 1991, and a major expansion of the league's television package in 2015, when ESPN, the Valley and member campuses committed to producing over 700 events a year.
In the last four years, he's worked to keep the Valley relevant after the departures of two of its most famous members, Creighton in 2013 and Wichita State last year. The MVC added Loyola in 2013 and Valparaiso last summer, and has lost some national luster. The Shockers, who have been in the national top 25 polls for years, are 16th this week. The league has no top 25 teams this season, but is one of five in the country with all of its members with an RPI of 190 or above.
Three teams are in the top 100 this week (leader Loyola is at 52, Bradley is at 84, and Missouri State is at 93), with SIU at No. 102. Through 10 regular-season games this season, three games separate the first-place Ramblers from fifth-place Missouri State, Illinois State and Indiana State.
"The thing that Doug has done in an era where the Power Fives dominate the landscape, he's made the Valley, regardless of it being men's basketball, you look at football, you look at athletics on the women's side, you look at track and field, I think he's made the Missouri Valley Conference a relevant conference," said SIU coach Barry Hinson, who has been in the league 15 seasons. "Look at it right now. There are 31 conferences, and we're eighth right now."
The Valley has produced 18 national champions in track and field over the last 11 years, and reached the Final Four in women's basketball (Missouri State made it in 2001) and men's basketball (Wichita State made it in 2013) during Elgin's tenure. Working with a staff that has been with him over 25 years, Elgin and the Valley landed the women's Final Four in St. Louis in 2001 and 2009, the men's Final Four at the Edward Jones Dome in 2005, and eight other NCAA Tournament regionals.
Patty Viverito, the senior associate commissioner in the Valley and the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, has been with the league for 26 years. Associate commissioner Mike Kern is in his 27th year with the Valley overseeing media relations for all 17 sports and the MVFC. Jack Watkins, an associate commissioner in charge of television, sponsorship and marketing, among others, is in his 26th season.
Elgin considers keeping his staff together for that long one of his biggest accomplishments, in the face of constant change in Division I athletics.
Elgin moved the MVC men's basketball tournament from campus sites to St. Louis in 1991, for a number of reasons. Five schools, sometimes more, bid for the right to host the event every year, he said, which created quite a bit of friction between members. The event sold well at campus sites, but would have more pull with the NCAA selection committee if it was held at a neutral site, and had more room to grow, both in attendance and advertising.
"Illinois State wins (81-78 over SIU in Normal), Rich Herrin isn't happy about a baseline call, and he approaches me, and he was right. That was too much of an advantage," Elgin said. "I can still remember that. At that point, when I was coming back to St. Louis, I thought we had to do this. Three years earlier it was Bradley and Illinois State, sold-out in Peoria. So it wasn't broke, but we had to fix it."
Arch Madness, as it's now known as, will celebrate its 30th year in St. Louis in 2020.
Before 1988, the Valley got multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament eight times. Since then, the league has gotten two or more teams into the Big Dance 16 times, with three in 1999 and 2005 and four in 2006.
The league has also had great success in other postseason tournaments. Wichita State won the NIT in 2011. Loyola won the College Basketball Invitational (2015) in 2015, and two Valley squads have won the Collegeinsider.com tournament (CIT), Missouri State in 2010 and Evansville in 2015.
Last season, for the first time since 2013, two women's basketball teams made the NCAA Tournament, regular-season and MVC Tournament champ Drake and Northern Iowa. The league has also had a good run in volleyball, with three teams making the 2016 field, and four in 2015, including SIU, which made it for the first time.
Today, Elgin has some of the same challenges he did in his early years with the Valley. Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Evansville joined the league between 1990-93, and Tulsa left in 1996 to join the Western Athletic Conference.
"The tournament is, obviously, a point of pride," Elgin said. "The television that we have now. We're producing 750 events. Five years ago we were producing 22 for Fox Sports. That's pretty exponential growth, and it's changed our culture. Now we're not so concerned about not having enough TV exposure. It's not on the major networks, like CBS, ABC or NBC, but it's available. If you're from Iowa City, and you have a kid playing a sport, you can watch every game."