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UNA leaders face tough decisions in Division I move
In Steve Pierce’s vision, the University of North Alabama football team travels to Norman, Okla., on a Saturday afternoon in the fall for a game against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Game complete and after returning home, the Lions deposit a six-figure check into their bank account and have received 31/2 hours of national exposure for their effort against a Division I powerhouse program.
Right now, Pierce’s vision is only a dream. But it might not be too far from happening.
UNA, a longtime member of NCAA Division II, is seeing its conference crumble around it with the announced departure of six fellow Gulf South Conference members, all of which are Arkansas schools. With few options left that would allow its affiliation with Division II to continue, UNA officials face tough and immediate decisions.
On Friday, university officials, including President William Cale, will present to the board of trustees a plan detailing benchmarks that need to be met for UNA to consider making a move to Division I. From there, the board will determine the feasibility of reaching those benchmarks. After studying the plan, the board eventually could vote to set in motion the events leading to a change in NCAA divisions.
Pierce, president of the board of trustees, needs only to look as far as former conference rivals Jacksonville State and Troy University to see how a dream of that magnitude could quickly materialize.
Troy, of the Sun Belt Conference, already plays a national schedule, and Jacksonville State, of the Ohio Valley Conference, is well on its way to being a fixture on Southeastern Conference football schedules. In 2009, the Gamecocks played Atlantic Coast Conference powers Georgia Tech and Florida State in football and opened this season at Ole Miss of the SEC. In the past, Troy has played at Ohio State, Mississippi State, Nebraska and even had a stunning upset of Missouri in a home game.
In each case, the games also brought huge paydays like the one Pierce foresees in a UNA-Oklahoma matchup.
Those types of games, however, can only happen if UNA abandons its NCAA Division II roots and makes a move to Division I.
Pierce said he’s a proponent of moving if the study indicates it is feasible.
“I know I’m a dreamer, but I feel like this community would support (a move),” Pierce said. “There are so many positive things that are happening that lend success to the program. It’s exciting to me to see the future of UNA. I’m not ashamed to say that I have been for it — I’ve been for it for 10 or 15 years.”
Pierce and Cale cautioned no decision has been reached or is imminent. The report is simply the first step in a process Jacksonville State officials and a former Troy athletics director say has been beneficial to those institutions.
Cale, who declined to be interviewed for this story and would only respond to four questions by e-mail, said UNA is assessing “both the benefits and pitfalls associated with a change in our NCAA division.”
“The benefits would include increased media exposure for the university, a chance to renew some old and familiar rivalries, attract larger crowds (especially from the opposing team) and restore a sense of stability that is presently lacking in the Gulf South Conference,” Cale wrote.
“On the other side, the most serious mistake UNA could make is to assume that a move to Division I is already decided and now we are just dotting our i’s. Indeed the assessment that I am presently working on will be quite objective in its approach and outline the kind of benchmarks that must be attained before a conversation about a different future for athletics can be discussed.”
Finances, finding new home key concerns
Perhaps the two biggest obstacles impeding any potential move from Division II are finances and finding a conference to call home. A 2007 NCAA moratorium froze any movement to Division I. Although insiders expect the moratorium to be lifted early in 2011, one of the new guidelines is expected to be that a school must have an invitation to join a conference before formally applying for Division I membership.
The 11-member Ohio Valley Conference would be a logical fit for North Alabama, given the geographic locations of its member institutions. It also includes former UNA rival Jacksonville State and another former GSC member, Tennessee-Martin.
The Southland Conference is another option that could be a good fit if the Lions decide to move up. The conference is comprised largely of Louisiana and Texas schools, but also has former GSC members Central Arkansas and Nichols State.
Football teams in the OVC and Southland conferences compete in what is known as the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA. All other athletic programs compete on the Division I level.
The bigger issue is from a financial standpoint. Joining a conference such as the OVC would require a sizable jump in the athletic budget. In 2008-09, the most recent reporting date, UNA spent $4.9 million on athletics, according to a school filing with the U.S. Department of Education. That figure includes coaching salaries, scholarship allotments, recruiting and operating costs.
The OVC average athletics spending, according to similar filings, was $8.89 million per school, including a low of $4.7 million by Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, which does not have a football team. Three schools topped $11 million in spending (Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Illinois).
Former Troy Athletics Director Johnny Williams, whose NACDA consulting firm authored a 2008 divisional feasibility study for UNA, said moving to Division I provides additional funding opportunities. He also orchestrated Troy’s move to Division I.
“(Troy) had to develop revenue streams that were previously not there,” said Williams, who played football and spent time as an assistant coach at UNA. “It won’t be easy, but it can happen. At Troy, we had to have a more entrepreneurial spirit.”
Williams said it was more difficult in the early 1990s to make the move than today because at first, Troy was not affiliated with a conference and did not have the option of scheduling big money games against major college football programs. That, he said, is a recent development when the NCAA agreed to allow football teams a 12th game each season. That opened spots on schedules for teams such as Jacksonville State to play at Ole Miss and schedule future dates against Florida, LSU, Auburn and Michigan State for large guarantees.
“Those games are all paying out between $350,000-$700,000 for one game,” Williams said. “Also, look what it will do for the branding of Jacksonville State. It’ll help their image. It helped Troy.”
Who pays the way?
The most pressing financial issue would be finding money for the Division I application fee. The NCAA will require a fee of between $900,000 and $1.2 million just to apply to make the move to Division I.
“That’s a genuine concern,” Pierce conceded. “The reason they added that in there is that the money comes back to the schools eventually. You have to look at the dollars that come back to the school from the NCAA for being part of a conference. Those dollars will come back — it might take five or six or seven years, but they’ll come back.”
The NCAA returns money for each athletic scholarship a school offers. Williams said the University of Alabama receives $2,000 per scholarship because of the amount of sports it offers. He also said the NCAA returns money based on each sport offered.
“That’s money that is not available at the Division II level,” Williams said. “If you are looking at what is best for the student-athlete, there’s very little comparison.”
Revenue also can be generated through a student fee. UNA students pay a fee of $12 per semester, but that money is pumped back into marketing for students, Athletics Director Mark Linder said.
Figures obtained through a variety of sources reveal that among OVC schools, athletic fees raised as much as $2.3 million at Tennessee Tech to as little as $78,000 at Eastern Kentucky. Jacksonville State does not have a student fee.
Other revenue streams can include higher levels of corporate sponsorships and increased alumni giving.
Corporate revenue has climbed from $270,000 in 2008 to $600,000 today, Linder said.
In his e-mail, Cale said the most obvious benchmark is financial, and he indicated that building a new science and technology building is the priority at UNA.
“Anything that detracts from that effort is harmful to both academics and athletics,” he wrote.
Cale also indicated that students must be willing to pay an athletics fee to support a change.
“Once we understand what it would cost, we can have useful conversations about feasibility and timing,” he wrote. “The Shoals community is rightly confused about the wisdom of a move because many believe we need to get our academic agenda secured before we head in a new athletics direction … there are academic priorities that come ahead of a change for athletics.”
Seeking total picture
Board member Libby Watts said she is interested in seeing the report. At a June board retreat, Watts was the only member to show pause when considering the move. She said she is not against it, but wants to withhold an opinion until all the data is presented.
“There are so many issues to consider when examining a possible move up — not the least of which is the money required,” Watts said. “We are in the middle of a recession, are in proration, have raised tuition on the students every year and we have not given our faculty and staff raises in several years. The money required for such a move is tremendous, and it’s not just a one-time expenditure. … We must look seriously at what the costs will be, not only now but 10 years down the road and later.”
According to the 2008 NACDA report, North Alabama would have to add at least two sports to reach NCAA minimum requirements. Additional staffing and scholarships would add to the price tag of moving up. Those would be major expenditures.
Transitioning to Division I isn’t a new topic at UNA. It has been debated since Troy left the conference in 1991 and Jacksonville State left in 1993. It gained steam in 2008 with the NACDA report, and there is a renewed sense of urgency given recent developments in the Gulf South Conference.
The six Arkansas members are joining three schools from the Lone Star Conference to form a new athletic conference.
Those departures will leave the GSC with only five members that play football, creating a scheduling nightmare. The NCAA requires teams to play at least eight Division II opponents to qualify for postseason play.
The conference is scrambling to find replacement members, but there are few potential replacements regionally that play football.
GSC Commissioner Nate Salant questioned in early August why UNA officials seem intent on speeding up the process of researching a potential move.
“Is the reason a fear of the football schedule?” Salant said. “Is the institution a better fit in Division I? Institutions make these decisions for a variety of reasons. You have to ask the basic question — has going Division I benefited Jacksonville State now? I haven’t seen JSU mentioned much at all except for their (academic performance rate) problems. I don’t see where that benefit is. It’s a gigantic drain financially and the appetite only gets bigger and bigger.”
APR is an NCAA measuring stick that ensures student-athletes are advancing toward a degree. Schools that fail to meet certain guidelines are punished by the NCAA. In 2009, Jacksonville State did not achieve the minimum standard and was prohibited from participating in the postseason. The Gamecocks have since improved their APR and are out of the NCAA doghouse.
“Again, different people have different perspectives on this kind of thing,” Salant said. “It’s not easy. I understand that.”
Pierce said, “We have to factor in what is happening to the Gulf South Conference as a reason why we need to make this move if we can do it financially.”
Cale said another key component to the benchmarking process is enrollment, pointing out that UNA is smaller by nearly 1,000 students than any OVC school.
“We must determine whether our enrollment can support this move,” he wrote. “As president of UNA, I worry about the great people who make this a great place. Their futures and economic well-being are in my thoughts every day, and we must find the right balance between people and programs. Neither should be held back to advance a particular agenda. That, too, is part of the benchmarking process.”
Pierce, meanwhile, can’t help but daydream about the potential a move would bring.
“I’d love to see where we would be if we had done it 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. “I can’t do that. What I want to do is see where we are going to be in 10 or 15 years from now. In Division I, I think we’ll be successful.”