A paternalistic, allegedly complimentary euphemism referring to NCAA teams that are talented but not members of a rich conference. Most often used in men's basketball, but it's creeping into football as well¹.

Gonzaga is perhaps the best example. Their men's basketball team is quite good; in each of the three single-elimination NCAA tournaments from 1999-2001, Gonzaga reached the third round, one of just three teams that can say that. Moreover, they were handicapped with a low seeding -- chronologically, a 10th, then a 10th, then a 12th -- meaning that Gonzaga did not have the luxury of playing an awful team in the first round.

Why the low seeds? Same reason that Gonzaga is referred to as a "mid-major" team. Gonzaga University is a small Jesuit school in Spokane, Wash., and they are a member of the West Coast Conference -- a league made up of small Catholic schools on the West Coast such as Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and the University of San Francisco. These teams don't have huge arenas and the like (though like all other NCAA Division I conferences except the Patriot League and the Ivy League, they all offer athletic scholarships). Compared to the nearby Pacific 10 Conference, their athletic budgets are small potatoes.

However, in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Gonzaga beat Stanford, one of the better Pac-10 teams and the No. 2 seed in the West region, 73-72. At the time, it was referred to as an upset. But when Gonzaga was as successful in the 2000 and 2001 tournaments, the wins couldn't seriously be called upsets any more.

It was around the 2001 season when people began saying that Gonzaga was a top mid-major team. It sounds like a nice thing to say, but it really isn't, because the speaker is subtly reminding us that Gonzaga belongs to a skank small-time conference. That's why Gonzaga kept on receiving low seedings in the NCAA Tournament; because many teams in the West Coast Conference aren't that good, the tournament seeding committee penalizes Gonzaga for a lack of quality wins. So Gonzaga can go out and win games, but they'll never be invited to the big-boy club -- that's the connotation of mid-major-ness. It would be like a WASPy kid at a private high school complimenting an intelligent but poorer classmate as a "mid-major student."

If there is a technical definition, a mid-major team is anyone who has a good record and is NOT from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Big East Conference, the Big Ten Conference, Conference USA, the Pacific 10 Conference, the Mountain West Conference, the Southeastern Conference or the Western Athletic Conference. (For football, take out C-USA, the MWC and the WAC).

Other basketball teams which are currently being called "mid-major" are, alphabetically, Ball State, Bowling Green, Butler, the College of Charleston, Miami Univeristy (the Ohio one), Pepperdine, Princeton, Southern Illinois, the University of California at Irvine, the University of Pennsylvania, Utah State, Valparaiso, Virginia Commonwealth University and Western Kentucky. The list is subject to change, of course, as teams' records fluctuate.

¹ -- women's basketball not included because the gulf between the top 10 (or so) teams and everyone else is quite large, meaning that means that terms such as mid-major are unnecessary.