Bill Beck: Questions will abound, but the NIC/NSC merger is a good thing

Cross-division scheduling -- or lack thereof -- will be key in football and basketball for all 13 schools.

Posted on May 1, 2014 at 5:23 p.m.

ELKHART — Aligning the nine Northern Indiana Conference schools to agree to add Jimtown, Bremen, Glenn and New Prairie wasn't all that difficult. The decision was unanimous.

Framing a 13-team, two-division league into logical working schedules, especially in football and basketball? Now things get tricky.

Any merger — families, businesses, conferences — takes time. Let's let the athletic directors and coaches do their job and see what happens. Everyone in the schools, inside and outside of the buildings, will weigh in with an opinion.

Voices will be heard.

The first duty, according to Elkhart Central principal Frank Serge, is to make the new schools feel they are a vital part of the conversation.

It's like the big Thanksgiving family dinner. The bigger NIC schools can't sit alone at the dinner table while the NSC schools are pushed off to the little kids table in the living room.

"Before we go to the next level, we have to bring the new schools into the process," Serge said. "They need to be involved now in the decisions."

I spoke this week with four administrators — Serge, Jimtown AD Nate Dean, Mishawaka principal Jerome Caldrone and Bremen principal Bruce Jennings.

Each indicated that while his school still has questions, there hasn't been a full-on pushback from the schools or communities.

At least for now.

"Surprisingly, there's been no kick-back at all,'' said Jennings. Bremen, at 519 students, the number logged in the IHSAA website, is by far the smallest school of the new NIC. Penn is by far the largest at 3,361.

The difference in size isn't as big of a concern as one would think, according to Jennings.

"When we took this to our students, we heard excitement," Jennings said. "We're underdogs. We like being underdogs. I know my student body is going to be fearless.

"I expect them to play up, compete up and to be fearless. I think we'll be OK."

Not to slight volleyball, tennis and baseball, but fans and communities want to know about football first and foremost. It's the only sport that's played one night of the week, with the tightest schedules and tightest contracts.

It's also where you have a 2A in Bremen lining up with a megapower 6A in Penn and 5A's like Central, Mishawaka and Adams.

Nobody is ready to feed the Lions to the lions at Penn.

Few want to see it, either. That's why the division proposal is a must, and by-laws that allow schools to opt out of full cross-division play is another must.

If Penn and Central want to play Jimtown and Bremen, and the Jimmies and Lions are in agreement, so be it. Play. If they don't, no harm, no foul.

And that ignites the first line of questions.

"People might say, 'Why are we bringing them in if we're not playing them?" said Caldrone. "That's just in football. A lot of those schools are already on our schedules in other sports. We're already working out with Bremen on our basketball schedule, not for next year, but the year after."

The new NIC won't debut until the 2015-16 school year. Today's sophomores at the 13 schools will become the first participants in the full league makeover.

One side will have Central, Mishawaka, Penn, Adams, St. Joseph and Clay, while the four NSC entrants will join Mishawaka Marian, Riley and Washington in the other division.

Keep in mind, the NIC counts only six conference football games on its nine-game regular season. Schools could opt to schedule another league team in a non-conference game, and were encouraged to when possible.

In 2014, Central will play rival Elkhart Memorial, Goshen and Fort Wayne Snider out of league. Penn lists Snider, Valparaiso and Portage, and the Kingsmen will certainly keep them under contract.

Longtime, spirited rivalries in the NSC will be abandoned when LaVille, Culver, Triton and Knox depart the NSC for the Midwest Conference after next year.

Some relationships may be kept. Others will blow away in the autumn wind.

At Jimtown, financial golden games against Concord and NorthWood will survive the cut. They won't be touched, though whether the Jims and Minutemen will forever meet in their now-traditional Week 6 slot is up in the air as future schedules are forged.

Can Bremen keep community rival contests like Plymouth and Tippecanoe Valley on the schedule?

Would Riley and Washington like to bridge the gap and build deeper relationships between inner city and outlying communities at Glenn and New Prairie?

Jennings hopes the answer to both questions is "yes."

"The football schedule has to take a priority as far as balance with the NIC and non-conference schools," Jennings said. "But we also have to have the ability to attract good coaches with a schedule that's not going to beat them up every week.

"In the division we're in, we think we have a good chance at competing and winning. Our families going into South Bend and Mishawaka to eat on Fridays, I think that's a plus. How well will South Bend and Marian travel to Bremen? That's an administrative concern."

Competitive balance, educational value, financial stability and community exposure through media were all on the table as the NSC schools presented their case. 

If you narrow the microscope to football and basketball, an NIC/NSC merger makes marginal sense.

There are scores of questions to ask and issues to address. Give the league room to navigate some unchartered territory.

Conference realignment isn't new. It's just new to this generation of schools.

A broader view stroke allows the NIC to make the NSC better and vice versa. The move was about the league as well as the 13 hand-holding schools.

Time will determine the level of progress and enhancement, but for now, we all wait.

Bill Beck is The Elkhart Truth sports editor. Contact him at bbeck@elkharttruth.com or on Twitter @BillBeckTruth

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