Bruce's Blog

April 2, 2013

Why is NCAA Division II just right for Western Intercollegiate Athletics?

In recent days I have been fielding questions like, “Why isn’t Western D-I?” or “Does Western have plans to go D-I?” - by a well known sports writer, via twitter, and at events locally and in Seattle where I was speaking.  Great questions and very understandable given the remarkable competitive success of our intercollegiate athletics program.

Today, we are enjoying the extraordinary record of success of the Women’s and the Men’s basketball teams, both making the Final Four.  So, so proud of our student athletes.  And, our basketball teams are not alone. 

Our women’s rowing team has won seven of the last eight D-II national championships, a record in any division of the NCAA.  This fall, we also took the conference championships in Soccer and Volleyball.  Most every year, we take the GNAC all-sports trophy.  Nationally, we regularly rank in the top 5% of the 300+ D-II programs in overall competitiveness.  Even though not a D-II sport, our Hockey team just took a national championship, and other Western club sports like rugby and bicycle racing are known for their excellence.

I could go on, but there is an enormous amount to be proud of.  Not least of all is the fact that our student athletes graduate at the same “best of class” rates that characterize Western students as a whole—and nearly 15% above the national average for NCAA II.

But, what about D-I for Western?

First point: it’s too bad the nomenclature is D-I, D-II, D-III.  Suggests a hierarchy running from top to bottom (or from “best” to “worst”).  Maybe divisions should have been designated something like: Red, White, and Blue because each division is different (different priorities, rule governing practice and such, scholarship support, etc…).  Each can be best (or worst) depending upon an institution’s situation.

Still begs the question, though: is D-I best for WWU?

Spent 30 years of my career at D-I schools, served for years on the national D-I NCAA Presidents Advisory group, lead NCAA visitation teams certifying D-I programs. 

Learned a simple principle that the NCAA mandates be followed when making decisions about intercollegiate athletic programs.  Really, any of us would require this same priority, NCAA mandate or not. 

The principle is this: intercollegiate athletics programs are to serve the mission, direction, values of the university.  Presidents, according to NCAA rules, are held directly responsible for asserting this institutional control.  And for making sure the tail does not wag the dog.

We have all seen the horrors when that principle was not followed.

So, it is not about what the fans or the alumni might want.  It is also not about how good the student athletes are.  It’s about what fits with the strategic direction of the university.

So, the first question to ask is: what fits best with Western?

While we do not try to be everything to everybody, folks can count on the fact that, if we do it, it is top notch: in the academic majors we offer, in the sports in which we compete.  We are about and are known for our excellence across the board.   That’s why 15,000 applicants sought admission to Western this fall (competing for 3,500 slots).

I most recently served at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, one of four D-I schools in Wisconsin, (the others being UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, and Marquette). 

Why was UWGB, a school less than half the size of Western, Division I?  Long history I will spare you, but it had to do with the strategic need of UWGB (a UW-Madison campus) to differentiate itself from other state colleges.

One is known by the company one keeps, a principle that applied in the UWGB situation – needing to be seen as more like Madison than like a state college.  It applied at Oregon State where I served for 23 years: being a “Pac 8” (then PAC-10 then PAC-12) university meant more than just athletic parity with the other doctoral research powerhouses in the conference.

With whom do we compete, when it comes to attracting the best students in Washington?  Our analyses make it clear: it’s just the University of Washington on the public side.  End of story.  And, on the private side, where the overall numbers are much smaller, it’s the likes of Seattle University and Gonzaga.

These are D-I programs and a case might be made, then, on grounds of university strategic direction, that we should consider D-I.  But, then, the other institutions with which we most directly compete for outstanding students are: Whitman, University of Puget Sound, and Seattle Pacific – D-III and a D-II schools.

Arguably, though, let’s say D-I would make some strategic sense based upon the “you are known by the company you keep” principle.

The next question is: can we make it work?

Well, let’s not forget that other principle that distinguishes Western: while we do not try to do everything, that which we do do is top notch.  Mediocre and Western just don’t go together.

Going D-I means every sport is D-I.  A minimum of 14 are required in D-I, as I recall, exactly the number Western currently has.

For those 14 sports, there are no I-A, I-AA, I-AAA levels: every sport – basketball to volleyball to golf to crew to track and field – compete with the UW’s, the USC’s, the Ohio States of the world when it comes to championships.

D-I means more expensive everything: scholarships, venues, facilities, coaches, recruiting….  Also, always escalating travel costs eat one alive in the West because of geography. The Western Athletic Conference, for example, stretches from Washington to Louisiana.

There are a ton of marginal D-I programs.  Some may even be good in one or two sports but they do that by starving the rest.   Or getting rid of some of them.  D-I schools have had to drop 205 varsity sports since the recession began (72 for women, 133 for men).

Again, being mediocre D-I would not fit with what Western is about.  So, what would it take to do it right?

For basketball, we would need a venue that seats 5,000 and has an average attendance of 3,500 or more.  Boxes (and the firms willing to pay beaucoup bucks for them) would be ideal but let’s pass on that.  So, we are looking at, when all is said and done, an $80-$100M venue, all that money having to be raised from private donations. 

On top of that we would also need boosters willing to work intensely to raise between $400,000 and $600,000 every year for athletic scholarships and operating budget.  Year after year after year.  Current fund raising for Western athletics is a small fraction of that amount. 

We would need students willing to tax themselves to double or triple their contributions to intercollegiate athletics.  We have great students and they love their teams – they are more “doers” than watchers, though, with extraordinarily high intramurals participation rates.  Would Western students vote for major fee increases – remember what’s been happening to tuition - for D-I athletics?

We would also need to sell, on average, about 5 times the number of basketball tickets we currently sell and at a price about triple what we currently charge.

That was possible in Green Bay.  You may have noticed it’s a sports town.  And, it sits in an extended metropolitan area of 1.2 million people.  But, Bellingham?

The finances just do not work out for Western, unless we want to be one of those too numerous mediocre D-I programs.  Or, are willing to rob the academic side – let one or more of our excellent programs slide to mediocre – to find the funds.

I have been at D-I, D-II, and D-III universities and one thing has always been obvious to me: the student athletes (and coaches) are just as highly motivated, just as hard working, just as driven to compete and win whatever the division. 

And, that’s one of the great things about D-II and Western: whatever the sport, our student athletes enter the fray knowing they have a real shot at a conference championship and, indeed, even regional and national championships.

So, I reach a conclusion that I find very reassuring: we are right where we should be in D-II.

Well, the occasional D-I conference has sent feelers our way and, following the logic just laid out, I have said: “we are just fine where we are, thank you.”  But, your mileage may vary; folks responsible need to lay their logic out for all to correct and so they can be held responsible.  That’s one of the main purposes of this blog. So, let me know what you think.

And, Go Vikings!



Page Updated 01.24.2014