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The MAC’s pirate mentality, explained by the conference commish

The underdog conference has an awesome new tradition.

@MACSports/SB Nation

On MAC football media day, commissioner Jon Steinbrecher announced the conference’s adoption of a pirate flag. The flag, Steinbrecher said, will be displayed by teams after they do notable things like upset Power 5 teams or win bowl games.

“For four years now, we’ve put together kind of a little tote board in our office that lists all of our teams’ non-conference games and the bowl opportunities,” Steinbrecher told SB Nation. “And every time they’d get a win, we put a pirate flag in each of those spots, and then I would email out our pirate flag with just a little congratulatory note saying fly the flag. And it was just a fun way to rally the troops.”

So, what do pirates have to do with MAC football?

“Pushing back on the labels that are slapped on us,” Steinbrecher said. “And the lack of respect that non-autonomous [teams] often get. And so I characterized us as the pirates of initially the BCS, now the CFP and the FBS. And just said, we don’t always get a lot of respect, and what respect we get, we often have to go out and take.

“And we may not have the biggest ships or stadiums, but we’re manned by well-motivated captains, which are our coaches, and the crews, which are our student-athletes, and chips on our shoulder to go out there and prove ourselves. And it was a good visual picture for me,” he said with a laugh.

“We’ve had that — kind of quiet, internally — and I thought this would be a great way to continue and continue to build something the entire conference, all of our membership, can rally around.”

As far as the actual plans for flying the flag, don’t expect this bad boy to be making any road trips outside the MAC’s footprint anytime soon.

“I have provided a flag for each institution,” Steinbrecher said. “Now I don’t expect somebody when they go on the road to be ringing a flag up somebody’s flagpole, obviously. You do this at your home stadium, and then when you get home from a road trip you ring it up. But certainly at home, I hope our schools have some fun coming up with some sort of tradition around this. And I imagine we’ll have some fun on social media.”

We’ve seen non-power conferences come up with slogans and such before — the AAC’s “Power 6” initiative is meant to associate that league with the perennial powers — and this pirate flag is the MAC’s way of standing up for itself amid revenue sports that tend to favor the bigger leagues.

“It’s also pushing back on this idea that we’ve taken what was intended as some governance designation — autonomous FBS conferences and non-autonomous conferences,” Steinbrecher said, of the NCAA’s differing legislative designations for conferences within Division I, “and the public and the media and others have slapped qualitative definitions to them that were never intended,” as in: BCS-style, power-conference status.

“Let’s let things play out on the field. Let’s not undervalue or overvalue a team because of some artificial label.”

The MAC had a pretty successful 2017-18.

In football, the year marked its 10th time to have five or more programs receive a bowl bid, and its Power 5 games included wins over Nebraska, Rutgers, Kansas, and Kansas again. And in basketball, Buffalo blew out Pac-12 champion Arizona in the NCAA tournament.

Steinbrecher’s conference has yet to have a team get anywhere near the Playoff, as was also the case for the BCS title game, though Western Michigan and Northern Illinois have made a couple top-tier bowls recently.

I asked his thoughts on expanding the current four-team system.

“The CFP is an improvement over the BCS,” Steinbrecher said. “It’s increased the revenue streams to all of us. There is increased access. We’re much better off in the CFP than the BCS. It was really hard to get a team into a BCS game. Now we know one of our teams from the non-autonomous group will have a team playing in one of those New Year’s Six games.

“You have a much better shot at being in the top four instead of the top two, but it’s still an awful — because of labels, because of other things — it’s an awful high mountain to climb. I think we all acknowledge that.

“Could it grow at some point? Maybe. But we need to be really, really deliberate in that, and we wanna make sure we don’t do anything to devalue the regular season. That is just critical, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that a football season has X number of weeks. And its easy to say, ‘Well, let’s just add another layer of games here.’

“One the one hand I say, God, wouldn’t that be great to have that? On the other hand I say, well, now I’m really into the middle of exams or I’ve gotta go further into the spring semester and the presidents have asked us not to do that.’ And we don’t wanna go earlier because we don’t wanna be starting practices in mid-July.

“There’s a host of logistical details that — when you start getting into it — makes it very challenging. But again, we live in a dynamic world, we evaluate this system every year, we have really good conversation, and who knows what the future holds?”

These pirates might not get a Playoff bid in the near future, but they’re still gonna make some noise and fly the flag when they do.