Officials focus on benchmarks in D-1 move

In lieu of a Division I conference invitation, the UNA athletics department has turned its focus to preparing the other benchmarks required to make the transition from Division II athletics.

“We’ve always said, after the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) last time decided not to expand, ‘You know, let’s just control what we can control – let’s try to do the best we can,” said Mark Linder, athletic director at UNA. “With that, we kind of coined the phrase ‘Let’s get D-I ready’ so that when that conference invite comes, we’re ready to say yes and pull the trigger.”

Those benchmarks include meeting a $3 million fundraising goal, phasing in a student fee not exceeding $8 per credit hour, capping institutional spending for athletics at 4 percent, meeting NCAA requirements for D-I membership, adding two sports and collecting letters from the community expressing support of the transition.

One of the NCAA requirements states that “new members must have a bona fide offer of membership from a multisport, voting D-I conference.”

This requirement is the one that has presented UNA with the most trouble. UNA hopes to move into the OVC and had the impression in fall 2011 that the OVC was looking to expand, officials said. Nov. 16, however, the OVC announced it was not looking to expand at the time.

Despite the setback, the department has a positive outlook and is excited about the move, Linder said.

“We’ve been working hard on trying to get all of our benchmarks complete and reached, and that’s going really well,” Linder said.

The athletics department has added two sports – women’s indoor and outdoor track teams are set to start in the fall. They have already begun phasing in the student athletic fee, and as have raised $2.93 million out of the $3 million goal as of May 3.

Linder said he feels that he is seeing a lot of support from the community.

Linder said the Shoals Chamber of Commerce issued a resolution in support of the D-I transition Jan. 20.

Athletics Annual Fund and Major Gifts Officer Melody Stewart said she is already seeing positive impacts of the D-I move.

“Our accepted applications are up… I don’t know that you can really pinpoint one specific thing that’s caused that but one of the big differences between this time last year and this year is we’re going D-I,” Stewart said. “I’d like to think it has a part in it.”

Head Football Coach Bobby Wallace said the D-I move may have been helpful in recruiting, believing some players were motivated by the move to come to UNA.

“We had some players that were offered scholarships from D-I schools who came here instead, and I think the fact that we’re trying to go D-I did play into that picture,” Wallace said.

Student support also seems to be up, Linder said.

“There’s a sense of emotion on campus, and I think we’re seeing that with our freshman enrollment,” Linder said. “I just think it’s a great time to be at UNA.”

In Feb. 2011, more than 1,700 students took part in a referendum sponsored by SGA, and most students were opposed to the move. Students protested the March 17, 2011, board of trustees meeting, when a decision about D-I was supposed to be made. The decision was postponed until June 13, where a 6-3 vote in favor of moving D-I took place.

Officials said those opposed to the move should consider the benefits D-I can bring the university rather than focusing on the challenges it will bring.

“I understand that, but the way that state funding and everything has gone, you’ve got to look at it like ‘OK, how can we generate revenue?’” Stewart said. “When you look at how other schools have done it and the results that other schools have seen, it’s an option – it’s a way to generate revenue.”

Linder said the move to D-I will be a great growth opportunity for the university, and hopes those still opposed will open their minds to the change.

“Some people don’t like growth. Some people don’t like change. Some people don’t like challenges,” Linder said. “And if that’s the case, nothing I say would make a difference.”