The University of South Dakota is officially set to join the major-college ranks, thanks to the South Dakota Board of Regents' unanimous approval Thursday of USD's request to reclassify. USD will move to Division I-AA for football and Division I for all other sports.
"The board has carefully considered this request and supports USD in its move to Division I, with the understanding that the university will become a member of an appropriate athletic conference," said Regents President Harvey C. Jewett.
The Inter-Collegiate Athletic Consulting (ICAC) group of New York recommended USD seek membership in the Great West Conference for football and the Mid-Continent Conference for all other sports. The ICAC also recommended that USD partner with the University of North Dakota, which announced its D-I intentions beginning in 2007-08, to create a more attractive package for seeking conference affiliation.
The regents' 9-0 vote allows USD to enter an exploratory year in 2007-08. The transition year allows the university to address alumni and fan support, conference affiliation and funding, said USD President Jim Abbott.
"Everyone at the university understands that there will be challenges ahead. We believe we owe it to our students, our alumni and the university community to ensure that our programs remain competitive," Abbott said. "We were confident that we had conducted a thorough study and fully responded to questions posed about this change."
Currently, USD sponsors 17 intercollegiate varsity sports with more than 350 student athletes. USD will formally submit notification to the NCC and the NCAA in the near future. USD athletic director Joel Nielsen commended the regents for approving the D-I request.
�This move demonstrates our commitment of presenting our student-athletes with the highest possible competitive experience during their careers, while simultaneously reinforcing our continued pursuit of academic excellence,� he said.
The regents� vote carried the same stipulations put on South Dakota State University four years ago when it made the same switch from Division II to Division I. Those requirements apply to things like scholarships, joining an athletic conference and finding the money for the estimated $2 million more it will cost at the D-I level.
�This provision limits increases in student fees and state funding to the regular, ongoing costs of operating the institutions, regardless of athletic classification," Jewett said.
The D-I move drew excitement among Coyote faithful even before Thursday�s announcement.
Former USD women�s basketball player Meghan Woster, who graduates Saturday, knows the rigors of Division I competition firsthand. The Sioux Falls O�Gorman graduate played for the University of Utah before transferring to USD.
With the announcement that the North Central Conference will disband, USD faced little choice, Woster said.
�I think it was a very necessary decision that USD made to go Division I,� she said. �It would have forced USD to move to a lesser conference if we had stayed Division II. I think it�ll be really hard for the kids that have to go through the transition to Division I, but it�s a necessary evil.�
USD has greatly expanded its women�s opportunities over the past two decades and will continue to do so under D-I, said Cecilla (Rew) Fitzsimmons of Yankton. Fitzsimmons resides in the Coyote Hall of Fame for her track and field career from 1982-86.
�I came to USD in the 1980s. Greg Wyllie was our coach. He took the program to a new level, and it has grown tremendously ever since,� she said, referring to the national accolades for the Coyote track and cross country program.
Fitzsimmons anticipates women�s athletics will find a new level of success in D-I, particularly with full scholarships.
USD will also benefit academically with more D-I scholarships, which will help keep more South Dakota students in the state and draw talent from around the nation, said Dan Fitzsimmons, Cecilla�s husband and Yankton High School track, cross country and gymnastics coach. �That will benefit the state, as you are more likely to pursue a career within 150 miles of the institution you graduated from,� he said.
USD will need to tap into new revenue sources, including alumni and fans from around the nation, said USD supporter Jim Robinson of Yankton. However, he remains confident that USD officials will get the job done given their recent fund-raising success, including a $120 million campaign.
Robinson expects the Coyotes will maintain a local recruiting base, but also need to expand their search for athletes. The first years of D-I will likely be rugged after years of competing for D-II national championships, he said. The Coyotes will also need to expand their fan base in an increasingly competitive market for the athletic and entertainment dollar, he said.
Vermillion and Yankton businessman Scott Munger, who earned his bachelor�s degree from South Dakota State University and his master's from USD, expressed excitement about D-I and said it was the best option for USD.
�I think it will generate some enthusiasm. I would say most people are behind it. They are enthused for it, even though there may be some bumps in the road,� he said. �I think it means the university is moving forward, and it�s great for the town.�
However, Munger said the D-I road is not without challenges, particularly financial ones.
�I will be curious to see the fund raising. How can they put together a competitive athletic budget?� he asked. �With football going up to 63 scholarships, how will a lot of scholarship opportunities be added for female athletes under Title IX? How will they allocate additional women�s scholarships and the opportunities that arise from that?�
Munger would like to see USD get into the Mid-Continent Conference, with the Dakotas serving as an anchor. �If you get into a conference quickly, the transition will go well. If you�re without a conference, it will be a much tougher go at it.�
Jeremy Hoeck, a USD student and sportswriter for the Volante campus newspaper, credited USD officials with doing thorough homework before making the decision.
�The university did seem to really make a decision after months of investigation. It wasn�t really something that seemed rushed,� he said. �They seem to be ready for any challenges that might come. I don�t think the university will be surprised by any challenge in the coming years.�