Dickinson State athletics may soon come to a fork in the road.
It is likely that over the next year, the university will face a decision about what direction to take its athletic programs.
Minot State’s acceptance into NCAA Division II, coupled with Black Hills State and South Dakota Mines exploring the same move, has DSU officials worried the time is fast approaching when it will need to decide whether to stay on the road it has traveled for more than 50 years and remain a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) or head down a path that would lead it toward NCAA membership.
“All of this comes down to choices,” DSU athletic director Roger Ternes said. “Where do you think you best fit?”
Since January, DSU has held meetings to discuss its options in the event Black Hills and Mines submit applications and are accepted for membership by the NCAA. The deadline for D-II application is June 1. The NCAA Membership Committee reviews the applications in early July at its annual convention and shortly thereafter announces which schools it has selected to begin a two-year membership process.
Minot State was one of eight teams chosen last year and Dakota Athletic Conference commissioner Lavern Jessen said the league has plans in place to move forward without the Beavers.
Jessen said if Black Hills and Mines leave, the DAC’s future is uncertain.
“Whether or not we’re going to see a Dakota Athletic Conference down the road, one of the key things is what Black Hills and South Dakota Mines do,” Jessen said. “If they decide they’re moving on, we have a very serious problem.”
The exodus of the two South Dakota schools would leave DSU on what amounts to an island with its closest NAIA competition 200 miles away and in a conference with five teams and no automatic postseason bid.
Essentially, it would be a death sentence to the school’s proud and successful athletic programs.
“In that situation, with that framework, we think we have three options,” Ternes said. Three options
If DSU’s worst-case scenario plays out, Ternes believes there will still be opportunities for the school to remain in the NAIA.
Two options involve looking elsewhere for conference affiliation.
DSU’s best bets would be the Frontier Conference to its west and the Great Plains Athletic Conference to the south. There are several pros and cons for each conference, Ternes said.
For example, DSU is nearly 300 miles away from its nearest competition in each conference and more than 600 miles from several others, meaning its travel budget would undoubtedly have to increase.
DSU is more familiar with the Frontier since its basketball teams schedule its schools during the nonconference portion of its season. DSU coaches also recruit in many of the same areas as the Frontier.
Still, outside of basketball and occasional football games, DSU rarely faces the Frontier. That stems from the conference only offering affiliation for eight of DSU’s 13 sports: football, volleyball, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s cross country and men’s and women’s golf. If DSU would be put in a position where the Frontier is its best option for conference affiliation, such traditionally strong sports such as baseball, softball, men’s and women’s track and field and wrestling would be left without a conference.
While the GPAC offers conference affiliation for every DSU sport, the conference would have to change its constitution for the Blue Hawks to join.
Currently, the GPAC is set up as a league for only faithbased institutions. It will also have 12 schools in the 2011-12 school year as the University of Sioux Falls (S.D.) has also been accepted into the D-II ranks.
DSU is also several hundred miles from every GPAC school, meaning that if the DAC were to dissolve and the GPAC was interested in expansion, it members might be more enticed to pursue other DAC schools that would be without a home — Jamestown College, Mayville State, Valley City State and Dakota State — instead of DSU.
“We have to look at the pros and cons of all of those (options) and weigh those if we’re going to remain an NAIA institution,” Ternes said.
Should DSU choose to move to the NCAA level, Ternes said the school would only do so if it was able to gain entry into a conference.
Ternes said, in that hypothetical situation, the best option would be to form a new D-II league made up of the regional schools who would either be without conference affiliation or may be searching for a conference that better suits their athletic budgets and geography.
“Are we better off getting in a league that includes those institutions? Then we’re on the same playing field,” Ternes said. “It gets us back playing those schools we’ve played traditionally for 50 years.”
Though DSU’s athletic history, facilities and ability to raise money may make being accepted into D-II relatively easy, Ternes said the biggest deterrent at this point is money.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA), the average D-II athletic department with football costs an average of 50 percent more to operate than in the NAIA.
However, the EADA also shows that DSU’s total athletic budget for 2008 was on par with several regional D-II schools that have football, including Chadron State, Minnesota-Crookston and Northern State.
Nonetheless, Ternes said school officials have watched the transition periods of several former NAIA institutions to NCAA closely and are in agreement that maintaining competitive programs at the D-II level boils down to one component — money.
“The issue with the NCAA, or at least one of them, is there’s considerably increased cost of operation. You have to certainly take that into consideration,” Ternes said.
“I think you wouldn’t be exaggerating — from all the information we’ve had and various studies — that it would be at a minimum of around $1 million annually in increase in operation. Keep in mind, that doesn’t include scholarships and those type of things, it’s operation. I don’t know of any institution that’s our size that has a spare million lying around that they want to divert toward athletics.”
One of the major changes of joining the NCAA is staff. DSU would have to create three full-time positions — compliance coordinator, sports information director and women’s sports administrator — not required under the NAIA banner. Other positions, like additional assistant coaches and training staff, would also likely need to be added.
Finding money to do that would become difficult, Ternes said, since DSU’s enrollment would likely take a hit because changes to student-athlete aid would force teams to cut back on the number of members.
While scholarships limits of NCAA schools are relatively similar to the NAIA, student aid is figured differently. NCAA schools must count any aid given to a student-athlete toward its athletic aid budget.
That, Ternes said, would devastate DSU’s numbers.
“This year, we have around 460 student-athletes,” Ternes said. “… We would probably, under an NCAA umbrella, reduce that number of students in athletics by about 150.”
The scariest part of moving to Division II, however, is the possibility of reduced success.
Since the DAC was formed in 2000, DSU has won four NAIA national championships — three in men’s track and field and one in volleyball — and has had numerous high finishes in men’s track and field, softball and wrestling. The Blue Hawks have also reached the national tournament in every sport in that time period.
It is unlikely DSU would be able to maintain that level of success in D-II.
Jessen points to an NAIA study of the 128 of its former members that joined D-II in the past 15 years. The study showed that 51 percent of the institutions have never made a postseason appearance in one of the eight most commonly sponsored sports, or sports that drive revenue.
“Some of them have had success, but for the most part, they go into Division II and are basically never heard from again,” Jessen said.
Most DSU coaches say they don’t even need to look at a study to see the effects of moving from the NAIA to D-II.
Watching the University of Mary, DSU’s former conference rival and one of the NAIA’s premier institutions in its day, play — for the most part — a middling role in DII’s powerful Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference is all the proof they need.
“I think there’s a lot of teams in Division II that many schools in our area could compete with,” DSU football coach Hank Biesiot said. “It’s just that they’re not in our area.”
As university officials prepare and plan for different scenarios and wait patiently for the South Dakota schools to make a decision, DSU President Dr. Richard McCallum holds onto hope that no further moves will need to be made.
“We’re very much committed to the NAIA and the DAC conference,” McCallum said. “I’m very optimistic about the future of the DAC conference. That’s where our commitment and our energy is focused.”
Still, Ternes said it does not hurt to be prepared for any scenario.
“We’re just going to find out what niche is best for us,” Ternes said. “In the next couple years, we’re going to work hard on that and keep our options open.”