USD decides to seek Division 1 status

USD decides to seek Division 1 status
"The North Central Conference we knew no longer exists."

With that, University of South Dakota President James W. Abbott announced Wednesday that his school will become the fifth NCC school to make the move from NCAA Division II to Division I, beginning in the 2008-09 school year. The announcement was made at Farber Hall on the USD campus, and is subject to Board of Regents approval.

USD has officially been studying the move since July, when the institution formed its athletic review task force to review its options. Earlier this month, that committee voted 21-4 (one abstention) to support a move up.

"There was a lot of conversation, sharing of information, stretching of minds," USD Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said of the process.

Similar decisions by Northern Colorado, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and, earlier this year, North Dakota, were factors in USD's decision, but were not the only influence.

"Our goal is to be the best small public university in the country," Abbott noted. "We want to be the best we can be in everything we do. That's what drove this decision."

Just four years ago, USD had affirmed its commitment to NCAA Division II, but the continuously changing landscape of the NCC spurred another look, Abbott noted.

"I was perfectly comfortable with the NCC when the NCC was chalk-full of schools like us," he said. "Now we need to join those institutions that have made a change. I thought USD made the right decision in 2002, and I think this is the right thing to do now."

A number of USD coaches and student-athletes attended the announcement, including head football coach Ed Meierkort, who voiced his support of the move afterwards.

"When you see schools like NDSU, SDSU going, you either decide to go with them, or you throttle back," he said. "It's a matter of who you want to be associated with."

Nielsen noted that USD has learned from the challenges faced by NDSU, SDSU and others.

"We'll continue to learn from them," he said. "Just because they left (Division II) doesn't mean we lost that relationship. They've been very forthcoming, and we'd be fools not to learn from what they've done."

Abbott noted that there are no major facility improvements to coincide with the move, other than ones that were already in place.

"There's a belief that every college in Division I has these magnificent facilities," he said. "In fact, there are many smaller institutions whose facilities are not as nice as the ones we have now."

However, the school's monetary needs will change. USD currently has a target figure of a $7 million athletic budget when it makes the transition, with extra funds coming from outside the institution.

"It's always a challenge to raise more dollars," Abbott noted. "But when we began ?Campaign South Dakota,' our consultant said not to give a goal of over $30 million. We announced a goal of $60 million and have raised more than double that."

USD will compete in Division II and the NCC during the 2007-08 school year, an exploratory year in the process. Competition in Division I for most sports, the Division I Championship Subdivision for football, will begin in the 2008-09 season. Eligibility for post-season will not come until years down the road, depending on the sport.

Nielsen feels the USD coaching staff is prepared for the transition.

"I've gotten to know our coaches, and they don't back down from a challenge," he said. "These aren't easy times for an athletic department to go through, but we expect the success we've had to continue."

Another challenge will be conference affiliation. While USD has conducted informal inquiries with several potential conferences, the formal application process cannot begin until the Board of Regents grants its approval of the move.

The recent move by NDSU and SDSU to the Mid-Continent Conference may open that door to USD and North Dakota as well, Nielsen noted.

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