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The Journal Gazette

  • Purdue Fort Wayne Chancellor Ronald L. Elsenbaumer, left, makes the conference move official Tuesday with Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone.

  • Elizabeth Wyman | The Journal Gazette Purdue Fort Wayne will join the Horizon League starting in the 2020-21 season.

  • Elizabeth Wyman | The Journal Gazette Purdue Fort Wayne Chancellor Ronald L. Elsenbaumer speak to the community Tuesday, announcing that PFW will join the Horizon League starting in the 2020-21 season.

  • Photos by Elizabeth Wyman | The Journal Gazette Purdue Fort Wayne Athletic Director Kelley Hartley Hutton speaks at Tuesday's announcement that the university will join the Horizon League starting in the 2020-21 season.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019 1:00 am

For coaches, 'It feels like we're home'

ELIZABETH WYMAN | The Journal Gazette

Men's soccer coach Mike Harper can only imagine the cost of multiple cross-country plane rides in a season.

Women's volleyball coach Steve Florio knows what it's like to spend all day on a bus and then play a match.

Men's basketball coach Jon Coffman knows all too well the struggles of flying to the Dakotas in the dead of winter, as feet of snow cover the ground.

There's no way to sugarcoat the fact that Purdue Fort Wayne's travel schedule is less than ideal.

That's why Tuesday's announcement that the university would compete in the Horizon League beginning in the 2020-21 season was welcome news to Mastodons coaches.

“It feels like we're home finally,” Harper said. “We've been pushing to get this for a long time and kind of bounced around in previous years, and the Summit League was great for us, but this is just so much of a better fit, geographically.”

Harper, a former IPFW player in 1992-96, is entering his 13th season as head coach.

He said his team was scheduled to fly to Denver; Omaha, Nebraska; and Kansas City, Missouri, in 2020, so the geographically friendly Horizon League eases that. The farthest Horizon League opponent is 376 miles away (Green Bay). The closest opponent in the Summit League was 355 miles away (Western Illinois). Competition wise, Harper thinks his team aligns better in the Horizon League.

“The teams are more like us, obviously closer, and we've played a lot of these teams in years past,” Harper said. “Last year we went 3-1-1 against Horizon League teams, so we feel we're going to be very competitive.”

Florio, entering his sixth season, is most excited for the new – and old – competition. He said playing in a conference based out of the Midwest will aid recruiting.

“The fact that we're going to be playing a lot more matches in the Midwest is going to be appealing to more Midwest recruits,” he said. “Since we recruit primarily – almost exclusively – out of the Midwest, I think that's going to be good for us. Sometimes it's hard for high school prospects to understand who our opponents are when they haven't heard of or don't know anything about the schools from the Dakotas, or Oral Roberts, or so on.”

The Horizon League is most notably known for Butler men's basketball's storied back-to-back NCAA championship game runs in 2009-10, 2010-11. Despite the league looking different since then, it's still very much a basketball conference.

“It all surrounds basketball, so we're excited that our fans will be able to travel and watch their sons and daughters and people they care about,” Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “Also, we're excited that we're having our men's and women's basketball tournament in Indianapolis for the next three years; what a great opportunity for the Fort Wayne people.”

Coffman, who's led one of the more successful basketball programs in the Summit League in his five years, is eager for the switch. Under Coffman, the Mastodons have won the second-most games in league play during his five-year tenure.

“Although the SL tournament is elite in its following and support, it creates an extremely challenging path for our program to earn an NCAA berth,” Coffman said. “We look forward to competing for an NCAA berth in Indianapolis in two years. We are extremely grateful the Horizon League Tournament is in our state – it's awesome for our fans.”

ewyman@jg.net