During Nevada-Las Vegas's heyday in the early 1990s, players were celebrities, driving glittering cars and comprising one of the best teams in history. A few years later, John Calipari knew his U-Mass. team had arrived on the national scene when he watched on television as Maryland fans chanted "We want U-Mass.!" several days before the Terrapins met the highly ranked Minutemen.
Both UNLV and U-Mass. reached the Final Four during the past 15 years. Yet both competed in conferences -- the Big West and Atlantic 10, respectively -- regarded as "mid-major." The term has been part of the sports's vernacular since at least the late 1980s and vaguely refers to teams or conferences that don't possess the same resources, talent base or offer the same exposure as the nation's top six conferences.
In today's BB&T Classic at MCI Center, George Mason meets 12th-ranked Maryland and George Washington plays 11th-ranked Michigan State. The doubleheader is billed as pitting two mid-major schools, George Mason and George Washington, against two power conference schools, each of which has won a national title this decade.
But many coaches around the country feel the term "mid-major" is often misused, giving programs labels that at times are undeserved or unwarranted. Last year, when a magazine presented Gonzaga, which won last year's BB&T Classic, with a glass slipper to signify the program's status as a so-called Cinderella team, one player wanted to smash it.
Clearly all 300-plus Division I programs are not created or marketed equally. But where is the boundary line that separates the major programs from the mid-majors? And where do the mid-majors stop and the low-majors begin?
"No one out there wants to be a mid-major," said Billy Gillispie, the first-year coach at Texas A&M who last year led Texas-El Paso into the NCAA tournament.
Dennis Wolff, however, said the label is an accurate description of his Boston University program, a perennial contender in the America East Conference. But, as Wolff said, "No one wants to be a low-major."
Derek Thomas, however, acknowledged that his Western Illinois program, which finished 3-25 last year, is a low-major team that competes in the Mid-Continent Conference, a league considered on par with the America East.
"I don't ever bring that [label] up," Thomas said.
The Atlantic 10, in which George Washington competes, is "right on the cusp" between a major and mid-major conference, according to George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga, a voter in CollegeInsider.com's mid-major top 25.
Last season, the Atlantic 10 was rated the nation's eighth-best conference, according to Jerry Palm's Ratings Percentage Index Web site, ahead of the Pacific 10 but behind the Mountain West Conference. That said, supporters of the conference point to the success of St. Joseph's, which went undefeated through the regular season, and Xavier, two Atlantic 10 teams that reached the NCAA tournament quarterfinals last season.
"I think [mid-major] applies only in football," St. Joseph's Coach Phil Martelli said, "because we all have the opportunity to play for the championship. I think it's a silly term for college basketball."
Xavier Athletic Director Dawn Rogers also rejects the mid-major characterization of her school's basketball program and added, "It's surprised me in the last year or two that some schools embrace it"
The University of the Pacific, which reached the NCAA tournament last year out of the Big West Conference, boasts on its Web site that the Tigers were voted third in the mid-major poll. And each February, the made-for-TV "Bracket Buster" event pairs strong mid-major teams in games around the country.
But many of the teams involved participate only because it's one of the few opportunities they can appear on ESPN.
"I was never in favor of the Bracket Buster if all the games are not on TV," Gillispie said. "If you can play on TV, you have to do it. But it's another way for teams to eliminate each other."
Teams pegged as mid-majors face other challenges. They can't easily schedule tough nonconference opponents on a neutral court, much less at home. And they are penalized in the RPI, one ranking system that measures a team's strength, even if they win conference games, which usually are against weaker opponents.
Western Michigan Coach Steve Hawkins remembered his team winning three games in a week and dropping 20 spots in the RPI. He recalled losing a road game at Kent State last season, only to hear analysts remark, "Western Michigan has no margin for error. It can't lose again."
Western Michigan needed to win the Mid-American Conference tournament, which it did, to ensure a berth in the NCAA tournament, even though the Broncos had nonconference victories against Southern Cal, Alabama-Birmingham and Arizona State. Utah State lost early in the Big West Conference tournament and was left out of the tournament despite finishing 25-3, the best record of any team in history not to be invited.
Conversely, when playing in a top-tier conference, "you could literally take two or three games off," Hawkins said, finish with a middling conference record and still make the NCAA tournament.
Utah, under coach Rick Majerus, reached the 1998 national title game from the Western Athletic Conference. Since then, Gonzaga and Kent State have reached the quarterfinals, but no team outside the top seven conferences, which includes Conference USA, has made the Final Four.
George Washington Coach Karl Hobbs said a mid-major team will reach the Final Four soon because parity is increasing because players leaving college early for the NBA. But even coaches from mid-major programs disagreed.
"I think we're far away," Wolff said.
Added Larranaga, "I'd say it's going to still be very difficult over the next 10 years."
Some bottom-rung teams from major conferences are branded major programs merely based upon their conference affiliation. As one coach said, "Which is the better program, Washington State or Southern Illinois? Clemson or Creighton?"
"What these bottom-rung teams are selling [for recruits] is the conference because they don't have the program to sell," Hawkins said. "We are selling our program."
In many people's eyes, though, you are what your conference says you are, which means Gonzaga is generally perceived as a mid-major program.
"I think they are in a mid-major conference," said Coach Randy Bennett, whose Saint Mary's team competes with Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference. "They are a high-major caliber team. But they are not doing it like the big boys budget-wise. That's the good thing about college basketball; you don't have to be one to compete against the big boys."