Purdue Fort Wayne director of athletics Kelley Hartley Hutton knew they were there.
As she stood at the lectern outside Gates Athletic Center on Tuesday, she could see the faces of the student-athletes peering out from behind the audience and news cameras. The women's soccer team looked fresh out of practice. A few baseball players huddled together, and basketball players stood off to the side – towering over most of the community members.
Hartley Hutton wanted to recognize them, because all of this was for them. She introduced Chancellor Ronald L. Elsenbaumer, who then announced that PFW would be joining the Horizon League in the 2020-21 season.
“I underestimated how much seeing student-athletes here and their excitement would affect me,” Hartley Hutton said. “Truly, their quality of life, their ability to compete at a high level – academically and athletically – was just improved today; it's a good reminder of why we're here.”
The Horizon League Board of Directors approved the university's application for membership this week, and PFW will officially join on July 1, 2020.
“We are excited to welcome Purdue Fort Wayne to the Horizon League family,” Horizon League Commissioner Jon LeCrone said. “The Mastodons align with the Horizon League's mission, vision, and core values and is located in the middle of our geographic footprint.”
The Mastodons will compete in the Summit League for its 13th and final year this upcoming season, before joining a Horizon League that's composed of 10 universities – Cleveland State, Detroit Mercy, Illinois-Chicago, IUPUI, Northern Kentucky, Oakland (Mich.), Green Bay, Milwaukee, Wright State and Youngstown State.
“I think our institutions align more closely,” Hartley Hutton said. “We're in the same recruiting footprint, and the way we're investing in our sports is much more similar really than our Summit League friends.”
Hartley Hutton said the university's realignment and split from Indiana University last summer provided a chain reaction for the institution, resulting in a more attractive offer for it to join the conference.
“I think we became more ready and attractive to the Horizon League,” Hartley Hutton said. “The new brand identity offers a new brand clarity that has been beneficial to this campus.”
The Mastodons will compete in 15 of the 19 conference championships the Horizon League offers. Men's volleyball competes separately in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. Purdue Fort Wayne does not compete in men's and women's swimming and diving or sponsor a men's and women's tennis program.
PFW, which competed as IPFW for the majority of its time in the Summit League, isn't the first Summit team to make the jump to the Horizon League.
Most recently, IUPUI joined the Horizon from the Summit in 2017. Previously, Oakland made the switch from the Summit League in 2013.
All but Detroit Mercy and Northern Kentucky had stints in the Summit League.
In 2017, IUPUI replaced former Horizon League member Valparaiso, which left for the Missouri Valley Conference the same year. That prompted speculationthat Purdue Fort Wayne might then make the jump.
“It was an idea that we had been talking about for a number of years, and when Valpo left and IUPUI went in that was one of those times,” she added. “We were knocking on realignment back then and there were some things brewing and we weren't ready, so we didn't pursue that hard at the time.”
It was Hartley Hutton and Elsenbaumer who put the application together to present to the Horizon League board. Elsenbaumer, who credited the chancellors before him, said this has always been an aspiration of the university, but the two felt the most confident in making moves this summer
“It's all about timing, it's always about timing, and I needed to be here for a while,” Elsenbaumer said.
“Now I've been here for 21 months, and it was clearly time to renew those discussions and to really promote our new institutions as Purdue Fort Wayne.”
The Mastodons were at a geographic disadvantage competing in the Summit League, which consists of Denver, North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota, South Dakota State, Western Illinois, Oral Roberts and Omaha.
Hartley Hutton said the Summit League has changed a lot since PFW joined in 2007 – most notably in a geographic way with most of the programs being west. The university started competing at the Division I level in 2002 and was not affiliated with a conference until joining the Summit League.
“The Summit League continued to expand, but all west, and (with) schools that frankly we don't have a ton in common with,” Hartley Hutton said. “Some of those schools are big flagship schools in football; schools with huge alumni bases.
“It's our duty to assess if that league was the best place for us, and we got to a point where we really decided it wasn't,” she said.
The league headquarters are in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Purdue Fort Wayne was forced to travel a good distance for every away game.
The Horizon League headquarters are in Indianapolis.
For comparison, six members of the Horizon League are less than 200 miles from Fort Wayne. It's 126 miles to PFW's closest member (IUPUI) and 367 miles to its farthest member (Green Bay).
The Mastodons' shortest trip by bus in the Summit League is to Western Illinois – a six-hour drive.
Hartley Hutton said the easier travel schedule should save the university half a million dollars.
“We'll still have to travel in this league but, airplanes are obviously very expensive, and the amount of time on the roads also equates to dollars, so those resources will be reinvested in other areas that actually make us better.”
The Mastodons have won seven total team tournament championships in the Summit League.