USD moves ahead with Division 1 task force

USD moves ahead with Division 1 task force
Next month, a University of South Dakota task force will provide its initial findings on a possible move to NCAA Division I athletics, USD athletic director Joel Nielsen said Wednesday.

The athletic review task force, comprised of about two dozen members, first met Aug. 21 and will gather again Oct. 5, Nielsen said. Six sub-committees, dealing with topics ranging from finances to facilities, provided an update on their work Tuesday night, he added.

"We did not talk specifics. We talked more about the process," he said. "We talked about some of our constituencies and ways to get feedback."

The USD committee was formed this summer following an announcement by the University of North Dakota, a charter member of the North Central Conference, that it intends to begin competing as a full member at the Division I level in 2008-09.

The loss of North Dakota leaves the NCC with six members, the minimum number needed for automatic playoff berths.

UND's departure follows exits in recent years by NCC members North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Northern Colorado for NCAA Division I and Morningside College for the NAIA. Last week, SDSU and NDSU received and accepted invitations to join the Mid-Continent Conference.

The quickly changing landscape prompted not only USD but also fellow NCC members Nebraska-Omaha and Augustana College in Sioux Falls to conduct studies about the future of their athletic programs. Should any of those members leave the NCC, the conference – which consisted of 10 members at one time – would fall below the six-member threshold.

The entire USD committee will gather Nov. 5 to finalize its report, which then heads to President Jim Abbott as he decides whether USD will make the move to Division I, Nielsen said.

"Will we give just information or will we make a recommendation? It's up to the committee," Nielsen said. "As far as a final decision, it's up to President Abbott's time frame, not ours."

However, one deadline looms ahead for schools looking to make a jump yet this school year, according to NCC commissioner Roger Thomas.

"In the NCC by-laws, the school leaving to reclassify has to let us know officially by Dec. 31," he said. "If a school has done so this year, they finish their conference obligations for 2006-07 and stay in the conference in 2007-08, then they can leave."

USD does not necessarily intend to make a decision this year, but the committee's work would be completed in time for Abbott to act by the Dec. 31 deadline if he so desired, Nielsen said.

"We are aware of the time line and dates in the NCC by-laws, and we take those into account when we make that decision (on whether to reclassify)," he added.

The six sub-committees are fiscal/personnel, classification policies for each NCAA level, facilities, conference affiliation, constituencies and support units such as academic advising and compliance.

In terms of facilities, USD enjoys a great deal of versatility with the DakotaDome, Nielsen said. The facility seats 10,000 and hosts football, basketball, track and other campus events.

"With the Dome, we provide a really great multi-use facility," he said. "We have added a lot to it over the last five to seven years, since we replaced the roof. It provides us with a great environment for a number of different sports."

USD officials are learning from other schools' experiences in deciding whether to move to Division I, Nielsen said.

"I think it would be short-sighted if we didn't learn from all different types of reclassification, from those institutions who have reclassified recently to those in the last 10 to 30 years," he said. "(Northern Iowa) left our league and Division II for Division I, 30 years ago, and we can learn from them."

While USD continues its study, Augustana is weighing its options as the smallest NCC school with 1,800 students and the only private school in the league, Thomas said.

The remaining NCC schools are watching with interest, Thomas said. Nebraska-Omaha is reviewing its Division II classification, while Minnesota-Mankato, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth have not undertaken any studies and have indicated they want to remain in Division II, he said.

USD officials have maintained conversations with other NCC schools during the process, Nielsen said. "We make our decision based on what is best for USD, but obviously we have talked with member institutions, weekly if not more often," he said.

While a school conducts its own study, NCC officials are remaining involved with the process by distributing information and holding phone conferences with athletic directors, Thomas said.

"My office tries to be in some ways the center of the discussion, to stay on top of the situation," he said. "The decisions on one campus affect the rest of the group."

Thomas said he has moved forward with plans to expand the conference membership. "Even if USD and Augie stay, we would still have scheduling difficulties. With only six members, that's not enough," he said.

Thomas said he has talked about a merger or expansion with the MIAA (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) and the Great Lakes and Northern Sun conferences. While the NCC and Northern Sun mesh geographically, one major difference finds the NCC allowing 36 football scholarships while the Northern Sun allows 24, he said.

Under a two-year agreement, the NCC has temporarily expanded its football league by including Western Washington and Central Washington, Thomas said. Those two schools were left with few Division II options in the Northwest, he said.

"Economically, it's not a great answer with the cost of air travel," Thomas said, "but it's a couple games that could help us address the need (for contests)."

The NCC's reputation as one of the strongest Division II conferences in the nation has created challenges in seeking new members, Thomas said.

"Our strength becomes our weakness. Those (prospective) schools are not geared up the way we are for a typical NCC school," he said. "Most of them don't have the budgets and staffing. Sometimes, they don't have the support services that goes into an athletic department. The NCC is tough top to bottom. It's the nature of the conference, and the way it has been."

Thomas noted one remaining scenario: NCC schools moving to Division I and rejoining SDSU and NDSU in a conference.

"It's in the back of a lot of people's minds," he said. "It would be an economically feasible league, rekindling the same rivalries with reduced travel. It's not out of the realm of possibility."

USD officials are not viewing the recent SDSU and NDSU conference affiliation as part of the Vermillion school's decision making, Nielsen said. "We are looking 20, 30 or 50 years down the line. All of our decisions are with long-term interests," he said.

Thomas, who received his master's degree from USD and served as assistant football coach and head scout at Augustana and head football coach and athletic director at UND, said he maintains a firm belief in the NCC's future.

"We are dedicated to keeping the NCC strong and are aggressively pursuing additional institutions to join the league," he said. "For 85 years, the North Central Conference has come to symbolize strong NCAA Division II competition, and we don't expect that to end."

The NCC must remain flexible in a time of change while still maintaining quality in choosing its members, Thomas said.

"I'm an old NCC guy and would like to grow it back to 10 teams," he said. "But we have to do what is best for the schools, conference and region."

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