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Winston-Salem Ready To Return To D-II, CIAA
There’s one thing missing from this week’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament: the local school.
That’s because financial troubles led Winston-Salem State to end its attempt to join Division I before it ever became a full-fledged member.
“You don’t miss what you never had,” athletic director Bill Hayes said.
So while the MEAC gathers at the Joel Coliseum to play for a prized spot in the NCAA tournament, Winston-Salem State has reversed course and is heading back to Division II after the Rams realized they no longer could afford to compete with the big boys of college sports.
Winston-Salem State isn’t the only school poised to drop down at least one rung on the NCAA’s ladder for next season. But while New Orleans is having trouble finding opponents during its transition and an eventual Division III conference, the Rams are ready to settle back in their former home: the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the nation’s oldest league for historically black schools.
The CIAA plays host to the most celebrated league tournament in Division II. Officials in the host city of Charlotte annually say the event brings hundreds of thousands of fans to town.
Maybe that’s why those who expected a revolt among disgruntled players are in for a surprise.
“Hearing the news, going back to Division II, it was shocking, but it was nothing major,” center Corey Morris said. “We’re still playing basketball. We’re able to compete for a championship, and the CIAA has an exciting tournament. … It’s just big. It’s a big atmosphere.”
A big atmosphere, but also a significant step back for a school that left the league and began its transition to Division I in 2004.
Those nearby road trips in the CIAA wound up becoming cross-country jaunts to play at such far-flung locales as Fresno State, Kansas State and Oregon.
As the Rams transitioned into the MEAC, they started playing a conference schedule, and those trips to Florida to face Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M began to add up. So did the cost of increasing the scholarship numbers to meet Division I standards.
School officials said the athletic department ran a deficit of $1.8 million in the last fiscal year. Chancellor Donald Reaves projected the deficit would grow to $15 million by 2012.
“With Division I and especially college football and all the travel in the MEAC, the schools so far apart, it’s an expensive proposition,” Hayes said. “We were just not ready to take on that kind of financial burden.”
The school’s board of trustees voted in September to halt the move to Division I. A month later, the CIAA’s board voted unanimously to bring Winston-Salem State back into the fold, giving the league 12 teams in the next academic year. At the time, commissioner Leon Kerry said that “once you are a part of the CIAA, you are CIAA for life.”
Men’s basketball coach Bobby Collins initially disagreed with dropping back down, but said his recruiting won’t suffer because he can accept transfers from Division I schools who want to play right away, and can offer them the chance to play for championships - something that wasn’t immediately available during the school’s transitional period.
“There’s a lot to look forward to,” Collins said.
The players weren’t always on board with the decision, either. Freshman Sam Johnson, a backup center who was recruited by teams in the Big South and Ivy League, said captain Brian Fisher asked Collins to leave the locker room so they could clear the air privately.
The consensus: Finish strong - and they did.
The MEAC’s championship-day “bonus game” between the Rams and North Carolina Central was canceled after the switch was announced; that annual exhibition was introduced a few years back as a way to keep its two newest members involved in a league tournament even though they weren’t yet eligible to appear in that bracket.
With that done, Winston-Salem State’s finale came last week at South Carolina State, with the Rams winning on a 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Hey, if we’re going to go out, we might as well go out with a bang,’” Johnson said.
By Joedy McCreary, AP Sports Writer