USD President Jim Abbott gave the go-ahead last fall for the Coyotes to make the move from NCAA Division II, citing his concerns about the future of D-II and the North Central Conference in particular. The NCC eventually announced it will fold after next year, adding urgency to the USD decision.
The South Dakota Board of Regents approved the D-I request, with stipulations, last December. Nielsen and the rest of the athletic department immediately hit the ground running as they began the five-year transition to D-I.
Nielsen packed his bags last month and headed to Orlando, FL, but it wasn't for sun, fun and Disney World. He and other USD officials joined Abbott in making the trek to the NCAA convention.
Their mission: Making their D-I plans known and courting conferences for possible membership.
"At Orlando, it was nice to put names and faces with the persons," Nielsen said. "We could just talk about where we are at, what we are all about and what we bring to the table for interested parties."
That included promoting the advantage of having the Coyotes as conference members or at least scheduling them as opponents, Nielsen said.
�First off, we are selling the entire university, not just the athletic department,� he said. �That (NCAA convention) was a great opportunity for us to interact. We could get information and speak with many of those conference athletic directors, presidents and other officials who may have influence on the decision-making capacity.�
USD officials are not just taking a scatter-gun approach to seeking conference membership, Nielsen said. They are promoting USD as a flagship university with graduate programs, seeking schools with similar academic missions.
�That is a great selling tool for us to begin conversations with other folks,� he said. �We hear from institutions who are interested in hearing our story and message.�
USD has hitched its wagon with the University of North Dakota of Grand Forks, which is also making the move to D-I. The two schools – who start their five-year D-I transitions in 2008-09 – are similar in academic mission, share a rivalry and are located relatively close together, Nielsen said.
USD and UND are hoping the package is particularly attractive to the Great West Football Conference and the Mid-Continent Conference, which have or will add South Dakota State University of Brookings and North Dakota State University of Fargo as members.
�We are talking with the Mid-Continent and Great West. After that, it�s the usual suspects,� Nielsen said, declining to name other possible
However, he doesn�t deny the possibility of the Big Sky Conference. And the Gateway and Missouri Valley conferences have been bantered about by observers.
�At this point, we aren�t closing any doors,� Nielsen said.
Nielsen is drawing upon his past experiences at other D-I schools, including Wake Forest, as well as USD�s current relationships with D-I schools. He has asked them about their suggestions for seeking conference affiliation.
�They told me to be patient, that there will be ups and downs, a lot of good days and not-so-good days. It is a marathon journey and not a
sprint,� he said. �We will continue to do the things we are doing to establish relationships, to go out and look for opportunities for conferences and good student-athletes.�
If the recent football signings were any indication, USD recruits are not shying away from D-I affiliation, even without playoff hopes in most sports during the five-year transition, Nielsen said. In fact, the move may have brought some athletes from various sports into the Coyote fold, he said.
�The indication is that there were athletes we would not have signed without going D-I. And other students are more willing to talk with us,� he said. �What we are hearing from early commitments is nothing but positive reaction.�
The D-I announcement has lifted the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Coyote program during the past year, Nielsen said. The D-I move will also greatly benefit women�s athletics with more scholarships, he added.
All of the things that come with D-I carry a price tag, and USD officials are gearing up for the additional fund raising, said Ted Muenster, president and CEO of the USD Foundation.
�The athletic department raises the money (for their programs), then we receive and account for it and manage the funds as they come in. In the future, it may involve setting up a separate staff,� Muenster said, noting the Foundation has 19 employees.
USD officials hope to expand the pool of donors and the size of donations from current donors to accommodate both the D-I fund-raising effort and other campus needs, Muenster said.
The Foundation finished Campaign South Dakota on Dec. 31, one of the large fund-raising drives in USD history, Muenster said.
�We won�t make any announcement of the final result until our meeting in May, but we can say we have gone considerably beyond the $60 million goal,� he said. �As far as D-I, that�s one of our board discussions when we meet March 1-2. We are working with the figure of an additional $2 million a year (needed for entering D-I).�
Muenster said he sees three major expenses driving D-I costs beyond the current $5 million USD athletic budget. They include more scholarships for a larger pool of athletes; more coaches and support staff, with the anticipated higher salaries; and the upgrade and addition of facilities.
�We have some very good facilities, but there has to be some improvements as we go forward,� Muenster said. �They are talking about basketball having its own arena. We have had it in the back of our minds for some time, but it has never gotten off the ground. This Division I transition could give it new impetus.�
The DakotaDome has received a facelift, including current work on the concourse, but those improvements were already planned and carried out long before any decision was made on Division I, Nielsen said.
The USD athletic department is working on a financial model that is conservative on revenue and realistic for expenses, Nielsen said. USD officials are looking at the budgets of similar D-I programs and the costs for other schools making the transition, he said.
�It�s not a science, but these are estimates in our proposals,� he said. �We are looking at incremental increases in certain areas.�
The move ensures recruits meet entrance requirements and that USD student-athletes receive academic advising and maintain eligibility, he said.
Besides fund raising, USD officials will also look at revenue sources, Nielsen said. That will mean higher prices at the gate, �but there won�t be a flare-up in ticket prices,�
Without a conference affiliation for now, Nielsen is piecing together athletic schedules with an effort to secure multi-year contracts. The Coyotes will remain in D-II during 2007-08. Nielsen has scheduled a number of football games in 2008 and 2009, and he is piecing together a schedule of D-I, D-II and NAIA teams for basketball along with work for other sports.
During the five-year transition period, Coyote fans may not see their teams, particularly football and basketball, at home as much as they have become accustomed in the past, Nielsen said.
�There are sports, primarily basketball, where we could be wandering in the desert. We have to make some concessions to get games,� he said. �We will do the best we can. We want to offer as many home games as possible.�
Ironically, the success of SDSU and NDSU during their D-I transitions may make it more difficult to line up outside opponents wary of the success of former NCC teams, Nielsen said. But he also thinks opponents are attracted to that type of tradition and success, along with the strong attendance which has made the NCC one of the top D-II conferences in the nation.
The Coyotes must successfully market their product against stiff competition, Muenster said.
�Things have changed tremendously during the last 35 to 40 years. For the sports fans, Sioux Falls and Sioux City have a full range of professional minor leagues, and there are so many other things and entertainment chasing the same dollars,� he said. �Even if you want to watch a game between schools, you need an incentive to leave your house, with its big home entertainment centers, to go out to Vermillion or Brookings and watch local schools.�
However, Muenster said he thinks fans will come out to see the resumption of regional rivalries which have been temporarily derailed by the moves to D-I.
�How do you develop the rivalries to interest fans when the teams are long distances apart and there is no natural relationship?� he said. �I think it will be inevitable that USD, SDSU and the North Dakota schools will play each other, probably in the same conference.�
On the flip side, Nielsen predicts more Coyote games in Sioux Falls as USD taps into that market. And Coyote fans will likely see expanded
television coverage of their teams, particularly on the road, he said.
�That (number of televised broadcasts) happens very rarely in Division II,� he said. �In Division I, they are not just producing more televised games at home, but they are picking up road games and feeding them back to local stations.�
It�s all part of the great change to Division I, Muenster said.
�It will be an adventure,� he said.