Once rock-solid NCC shaken

Once rock-solid NCC shaken
While still miles from Vermillion, travelers can see the DakotaDome in the distance. But while the landscape remains familiar for both area residents and visitors, the landscape of another sort is undergoing dramatic changes.

The University of South Dakota Coyotes have shown their athletic excellence in NCAA Division II. They have captured national titles and

remained a perennial power in the North Central Conference (NCC).

However, the formerly rock-solid NCC has been shaken to its foundation.

The league has been reduced to seven members with the departure of South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Northern Colorado to Division I and Morningside College to NAIA.

The number will drop to six – the minimum required for automatic playoff spots – when North Dakota enters the Division I ranks with the

2008-09 school year. UND officials announced the decision in July.

And athletic studies are also underway at NCC members Augustana College in Sioux Falls and the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The NCC is not the only conference seeing shifts, said USD athletic director Joel Nielsen. He pointed to the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, moving from NAIA to Division II and joining the Northern Sun Conference.

"The landscape is changing every day for the Upper Midwest. This directly affects what we do and how we do it," Nielsen said. "The issue

won't go away until some of the changing slows down. It seems like there has been change over the last five years, if not weekly, then monthly or at least annually."

A 26-member athletic review task force, appointed by USD President James Abbott, has been busy assessing the school's athletic classification and conference affiliation.

The task force has a target date of Nov. 6 to complete its review. The group will forward its findings and any recommendations to Abbott, who makes the final decision. A move to Division I would require the approval of the South Dakota Board of Regents.

The task force already has information gathered from a 2002 study on whether to move to Division I, said Tina Keller, task force co-chairman, physics professor and associate dean for administration in the College of Arts and Sciences at USD. While USD officials decided at that time to remain in Division II, the landscape has changed greatly in the past four years, she added.

In addition, USD officials plan to use information from UND's process because the schools are similar in academics including professional


Money will definitely loom as a major issue, Nielsen said.

"The average I-AA school with football has an annual athletic budget in the range of $7.5-8 million," he said. "We currently run a $4.7-5 million athletic budget for the next fiscal year. We have always been in the ballpark for pure Division II schools."

NCC schools with Division I hockey, such as UND, have larger athletic budgets, which makes comparisons somewhat difficult, Nielsen said. "The best comparison may be between us and SDSU three years ago. We had very

similar budgets," he said.

USD will likely need to raise an additional $2 to $3 million annually if it moves to Division I, Nielsen said. The Board of Regents policy places restrictions on funding sources, including tuition and fees, for Division I reclassification, he said.

"We have to draw from fund raisers, corporate sponsorships and ticket revenue," he said. "We are always looking for additional revenue."

The Regents passed their 2002 policy in response to SDSU's move to Division I, but the same policy and concerns apply to the other state

colleges and universities, said Regents executive director Tad Perry.

The Regents won't become involved in any Division I activity by USD until the school would request final approval, Perry said. At that point, the Regents could set up a public forum to receive input before

making a final decision, he said.

"The main thing we ask: Can they financially afford it?" Perry said. "The policy we adopted when we went through this with SDSU laid out the financial conditions of institutions going Division I. It prevents them from moving dollars away from academics or scholarships."

The Regents learned a great deal from working with SDSU's application, Perry said.

"I think we have a better appreciation for the complexities of the Division I status," he said. "It's not as easy as you might think. You can't just declare you're going Division I and become a powerhouse."

Perry noted SDSU's ongoing efforts at conference affiliation. "Unless the whole NCC goes Division I as a conference, you have to put together a schedule, and it takes time to do that," he said.

While USD would prefer a conference affiliation in place should it go Division I, that rarely happens for most schools, Nielsen said. And an

effort to move the entire NCC to Division I would prove highly challenging, he predicted.

"When you are talking three, four or five institutions, all making the same move to a new division, arguably at the same time – that sounds

very daunting," he said.

The Regents also learned more about the high cost of going Division I through the SDSU experience, Perry said.

"Those costs are not insignificant," he said. "You have to have some comfort in your capacity to fund them, primarily from external sources."

Even maintaining the status quo carries some high costs, Nielsen said. The NCC has added two Washington schools to its football conference for two years with the option of a third year, he said. A game at Washington with 50 players likely carries a price tag of more than $30,000 just for the flight, he said.

Should USD decide to pursue Division I, the university would point to a number of assets, Nielsen said. Those include the renovated DakotaDome – which could continue hosting both football and basketball as is done at the University of Northern Iowa – as well as the Sioux Falls and Sioux City media markets and the Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Omaha airports, he said.

USD's enrollment of about 8,600 students would not necessarily work against the school should it choose Division I, Nielsen said.

"You look at Division I and there are a number of institutions that are (enrollment of) 5,000 and less in Division I-AA," he said. "I worked at one (Wake Forest) for eight and a half years, and we had less than 3,500. And Rice is smaller than Wake Forest. Size does comes into play with alumni, students, attendance and generation of student fees per credit hour."

Keller noted the former NCC schools now in Division I have already found successes in their initial efforts.

"NDSU has had mixed results. The football team has done reasonably well, and the men's basketball team had gone down and beat Wisconsin, a Top 20 program," she said.

"SDSU has done some interesting things, particularly with women's basketball. The NCC has always been a very high caliber of basketball, so I'm not surprised that the women's teams have done well in Division I."

While USD officials decided against pursuing Division I in 2002, the discussion has never gone away, Nielsen said.

"(Abbott) has remained engaged in this discussion the past two and a half years," he said. "Rarely a week goes by that he and I don't have additional discussion on Division I."

Keller said she anticipates some lively discussion as USD charts its athletic future.

"Things should move forward pretty quickly," she said of the task force's work. "I really think it's fair to say we have heard suggestions and comments that range the gamut."

"It will be a learning experience, and it will be fun and challenging," she added.

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