FLORENCE – Once left at the altar by the Ohio Valley Conference in its pursuit of moving to NCAA Division I athletics status, four years later the University of North Alabama appears closer to reaching a resolution in the matter.
University officials confirmed there has been an “exchange of information” with the Atlantic Sun Conference, and indications are expansion is on the table for that conference.
Although UNA officials have not indicated an invitation to join the eight-team A-Sun Conference is imminent, they are eager to reach a conclusion in the saga that has been ongoing since 2011.
As part of his contract, two of university President Ken Kitts’ goals are to resolve the athletics classification issue and to increase enrollment. Moving to Division I would satisfy the classification portion of his contract, and if university-provided statistics are accurate, a potential enrollment increase of between 11 percent and 13 percent could follow.
Kitts said the athletics issue would be resolved by September 2017, the date for his next annual evaluation.
"The longer this goes on, it is just not healthy for the institution and not healthy for our relationship with Division II and our current conference," Kitts said.
"I get asked about it every time I go out and deliver a public talk about UNA, and I would welcome the day when that is not a question, and we have an answer and know where we are going."
UNA has long met the criteria for making a move to Division I except for one item – a conference landing spot as required by the NCAA.
When the university’s governing board voted 6-3 in 2011 to pursue Division I status, it appeared the Ohio Valley Conference was on the brink of expansion. But the conference nixed expansion, and the Lions have been in limbo ever since.
The sticking point for a move has been football. The Atlantic Sun does not sponsor football, which is a staple of UNA athletics. However, a partnership between the Big South Conference and the A-Sun announced in September guarantees a football “home” within the Big South for A-Sun members that play scholarship football. That partnership opens the door for UNA and its football program.
“We’ve been in contact with (A-Sun Commissioner) Ted (Gumbart) to see if UNA would be a good fit for them, and if the A-Sun is a good fit for UNA,” Director of Athletics Mark Linder said. “That’s kind of where we are with the A-Sun. We have got to get out of no-man’s land.”
The move to Division I would come with a price tag. Linder estimates that to reach an athletic budget of $11.5 million or $12 million, which is similar to Jacksonville State’s, approximately $3.5 million in new money would be needed. He said that money could be attained by increasing the amount of corporate sponsorships and individual donations, and by having access to increased NCAA funding.
“I think Jacksonville State was close to $1 million is what they got from the NCAA,” he said. “As a point of comparison, we received $10,000 from the NCAA as Division II.
The resolution adopted in 2011 does not have an expiration date, but Marty Abroms, president of the current board of trustees, said he would insist a new resolution be drafted if UNA were to be invited to join a Division I athletic conference.
Abroms was not a member of the board in 2011 when the first vote was taken. In fact, only three members remain from the board that approved the change.
"There needs to be further clarification if we do move forward with Division I," Abroms said. "I don't think it would be prohibitive or even difficult, but there has to be clarification, especially of the financial implications, in order to move forward."
Abroms said he understands that a Division I athletic program would require a larger operational budget, but he does not want the financial burden of athletics to detract from UNA's academic pursuits.
"The board never really clearly identified the financial implications or conditions of the transition," Abroms said. "Any move, from my perspective, any proposal needs to have conditions in it to limit the financial support so that it does not take away anything from the rest of our college program.
"I want the historical resources devoted to athletics to be somewhere in the same range it has been. It needs to stay balanced as we grow."
Linder said moving into the A-Sun would get UNA’s brand into markets such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia.
“In this day and age we are all concerned about enrollment,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to get our brand into a market that has more potential students for our university.”
UNA has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success on the Division II level. The Lions have won national championships in football, men’s basketball, volleyball and, most recently, in softball. The volleyball team is headed to the NCAA tournament later this week and the football team is again in the playoffs.
Linder, though, thinks similar success can be attained on the Division I level.
“This is about the pursuit of excellence if this comes about,” he said. “With some strategic planning and a lot of hard work and patience, I believe we can get there. If this happens and we go Division I, is it going to be hard? It’s going to be hard. Can it be transformational? Yeah, it can be transformational. Can I guarantee what it is going to look like? I can’t.”
Linder said the landscape continues to change, prompting UNA to explore its options.
“We have been a Division II pillar for 40 years,” he said. “If we continue in Division II, we would build on our traditions, and we’re proud of what we have accomplished. But if you take the numbers from the last 40 years – the basketball schedule, the football schedule, 70 percent of the teams we played in 1976 are now Division I members. I believe that has an impact on the excitement level. Some of our older rivals seem to have moved on.”
If UNA receives and accepts an invitation to the A-Sun, it would begin play in 2018 after providing the Gulf South Conference with one year’s notice of its decision. UNA’s athletic facilities, although largely in need of upgrades, meet NCAA requirements for the move, and the school has the $1.45 million application fee in hand.
Steve Pierce is one of the three remaining board members from the 2011 board. Pierce, president of the board at the time, was an emphatic "yes" vote at the time, and his enthusiasm and insistence that UNA's athletic future lies in Division I has not waivered.
He said he believes the transition will benefit the university as a whole without putting undue burdens on departments unaffiliated with athletics.
"I am 1,000 percent for it," Pierce said. "I think it is something that could have a tremendous impact on the branding and marketing of our university. I've said all along this is not just athletics, and I think people are finally realizing this would help academics as much as it would athletics."
Piece said he is "optimistic" that the pieces will now fall in place for UNA to transition.
"I really don't want to talk about it, because I've wanted it to happen so badly," he said. "I'm afraid if I talk about it, I could jinx it by opening my mouth."