The announcement last week by the National Collegiate Athletic Association that its Division I Board of Directors had approved a four-year moratorium on accepting new members into the group’s ever-growing top competitive level left more questions than it answered.
The NCAA plans to discuss possible changes in the criteria for evaluating and admitting new member colleges to Division I. Could the intention be to cap membership, or perhaps shrink the current list of colleges to appease athletics directors in major conferences who might see the newly admitted -- and often smaller -- colleges as offering little prestige and taking prized automatic spots in the NCAA basketball tournament? Or is this more a case of Division II, the NCAA's often forgotten membership division, raising a concern as it tries to stem outmigration?
While the NCAA has toughened the criteria for membership in Division I-A -- the highest competitive level for football -- it had not until now addressed the issue for all of Division I, whose membership of colleges seeking to play basketball at the association's top level has grown steadily in the last few years. With more than 330 current members, and nearly two dozen colleges that have already begun the process of joining the division (and are exempt from the moratorium), some have begun to wonder whether the division has a growth problem.
The conversation is already raising questions -- who wields power in big-time college sports, when is a program truly competitive, how do you measure adequate funding? -- that have often played prominently in Division I debates.
S. David Berst, a longtime NCAA staff member who is closely involved in Division I issues, said that while he hasn't heard any talk of reclassifying current members out of Division I, "everything will be on the table" during discussions, including whether there are too many teams and whether standards should be increased. When considering new members, the NCAA takes into account, among other things, a college's ability to support an entire athletics program (including the so called "non-revenue" sports), field a full slate of teams and run what it deems a functional academic support program, Berst said.
The NCAA anticipated that more colleges were on the verge of trying to move into Division I, which could have posed logistical problems as far as which conferences absorbed new members and whether enough spots existed in championship competition.
Berst said talk of the moratorium surfaced during a recent meeting of the NCAA Executive Committee Membership Working Group, a panel that includes representation from all three divisions.
That group has already started looking at issues involving membership in Divisions II and III. Many Division II colleges have long seen moving up to the top competition level as the ultimate goal, and Division III (the largest of the divisions, which differentiates itself by not awarding any athletic scholarships) has considered subdividing.
“It became apparent during those discussions that there’s a carryover impact on Division I,” Berst said. “There hadn’t been much public discussion of whether the new schools look like what we contemplate Division I institutions being. It seems like we need to stop and take a deep breath.”
Behind the Push
Just who, if any one group, is pushing most vehemently for a reconsideration of membership criteria remains unclear. One logical guess would be athletic leaders in some of the juggernaut Division I conferences, no strangers to power plays when in comes to membership discussions. (See, for instance, past threats of bolting the NCAA.)
Dave Waples, athletics director at Kennesaw State University, in Georgia, which is in the third year of a four-year reclassification period on the way to full Division I membership, said he understands why athletics officials from major conferences would be irked by the influx of teams.
"They feel they are getting robbed," he said. "In basketball, coaches lose jobs because they don't get into the NCAA tournament. Presidents and alumni get upset. There's a bit of tension there because the smaller boys are taking their slots."
Berst said he assumes some universities from the major conferences will show concern in coming months about the burgeoning Division I population. But Richard Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, said he sees the charge coming from a different corner. Division II has been trying to get membership standards in place for awhile, he said, and "the concern I was hearing was out of those ranks more than from Division I."
Wood Selig, athletics director at Division I Western Kentucky University, said the moratorium was a necessary move to stop what he called an "uncontrollable rush of institutions looking to reclassify," largely from Division II to Division I.
“A lot of it is men’s basketball driven," Selig added. "Everyone is chasing the perceived pot of gold. There’s been such a mass exodus that there naturally is a concern over how many more mouths we are trying to feed."
Ensor said that while it's premature to tell what direction the review will take, he welcomes a study of Division I entry standards. And he isn't worried about the potential of losing members of his conference, which has seen little recent migration in or out.
View From Inside and Out
It's hardly surprising that a discussion of NCAA membership flow would focus on the Division I conferences that are considered, in basketball terms, "mid-majors" or below. They are the ones whose memberships are most fluid.
Ensor said newly admitted colleges feel financial pressure to find conference affiliations and not enter as independents. One fear among the sports powers is that as mid-major conferences grow, they may split off. In the case of the NCAA basketball tournament, more conferences mean more automatic bids and fewer slots for at-large teams in major conferences.
Waples, the Kennesaw State athletics director, said he doubts his institution would have been accepted into the division had it not first found a conference sponsor. Atlantic Sun Conference officials helped Kennesaw be in a position to join Division I by telling the athletics department which sports there weren't receiving enough financial support, Waples said.
Division II, where Kennesaw competed previously, asks colleges to find a conference sponsorship prior to being admitted. Berst said the idea of adopting that type of provision would be under consideration during Division I's discussions.
“I think the process [for Division I entry] right now is about as difficult as you want to make it," Waples said. "It’s really the decision of a conference. If they say you are good enough to be in their league, I think the NCAA acquiesces to that."
But Selig, of Western Kentucky, said there "probably are too many teams" in Division I. He wants the NCAA to focus on setting minimum standards for areas such as financial scholarships, number of programs fielded and overall operating budget.
"Let's make sure people are competing on an equitable basis," he said. "In some cases, you have institutions with a shell of an athletics department who are competing at a higher level in men's basketball. That, to me, isn't what D-I athletics is about."
Waples is torn over how to solve the membership dilemma. On the one hand, he said he wants what's best for the division, which might mean a sustained moratorium. But as head of an athletics department that recently joined Division I, he said he understands how important it is to allow upward mobility.
Ed Murphy, athletics director at the University of West Georgia, a Division II member, said he is frustrated by the NCAA board's decision. His institution has gone public with its interest in joining Division I as soon as it's financially possible.
Murphy is optimistic that the combination of the university's enrollment growth, its stadium construction projects and its location less than an hour from Atlanta bodes well for West Georgia when the moratorium is lifted.
"I didn't see this coming, and there's nothing we can do about it," Murphy said. "It doesn't interfere with our goals, because we're a few years away anyway, but it's a disappointing thing to throw into the mix."