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Jeff Kolpack, Published December 02 2004

UND mulls Division I move

© Copyright 2004

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The University of North Dakota has formed a committee to gather information on expanding its NCAA Division I athletics and is leaving open the potential for discussions with the Big Sky Conference.

It comes two months after university President Charles Kupchella said the school was in no hurry to pursue Division I athletics for all of its programs.

The committee is looking at the issue philosophically and financially as part of the university's overall strategic planning, said Athletic Director Roger Thomas.

It appears a changing landscape, specifically the Big Sky Conference's decision to consider expansion, has caught UND's attention.

"The discussions the Big Sky has had in the last little bit of time have certainly perked things up," Thomas said. "Just a few months ago, that wasn't the case."

On Oct. 14, Kupchella said in his State of the University address he was in no hurry to see the school move up in all sports.

"When it looks like a good idea, then we'll do it," Kupchella said at the time.

He said such a move would require a $70 million endowment to generate $3 million more annually to pay for the athletic program.

The Forum, through an open record's request of all documents between UND and the Big Sky Conference, obtained an Aug. 12 letter from Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton to Kupchella inviting UND to open dialogue with the Big Sky.

In an Aug. 25 response, Kupchella wrote UND is "constantly monitoring the issue of NCAA classification."

"There are a number of 'factors' that we consider in assessing our best interests," Kupchella wrote. "Many of these are dynamic and certainly one of them is the availability of conference affiliation."

Thomas said UND will decide in the next 12 days on how it will respond "one way or another."

The Big Sky Presidents Council meets Dec. 13 to decide which schools, if any, to formally visit. NDSU, South Dakota State, Northern Colorado and Southern Utah each have returned to the Big Sky a required questionnaire.

Thomas said UND would have to do surveys "and other types of mechanical things other people did" before it would proceed with any movement toward Division I.

"We've been gathering information, but there are legitimate public steps that schools have done," he said. "We're well aware of those steps. Are we representing our coaches, fans, campus and faculty? If we make a decision, it has to be grounded in some facts."

The fact the university is discussing the possibility of an answer other than "no" is a new development to the Division II vs. Division I issue dominating discussions at the state's two major colleges.

The Forum's records request revealed one document from Thomas' office -- a revenue and expense comparison of the eight Big Sky schools that was sent to Thomas on Aug. 30.

"Other schools that we have been competitive with have done it and there are reasons for that," Thomas said, "and you have to look at those reasons and see how they're applicable to what we do."

Thomas and Kupchella met Wednesday morning, partly to discuss the Big Sky issue.

"I think we need to tell the Big Sky something," Thomas said.

Thomas said UND has looked at the athletic departments at the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine because both are I-AA football schools with Division I hockey. UND has Division I hockey.

"We're trying to look at the pieces and say, 'How would that fit on this campus?' " he said.

NDSU Athletic Director Gene Taylor said he's talked with Thomas on the issue. He said he's also taken phone calls from UND head men's basketball coach Rich Glas and head swimming and diving coach Maviael Sampaio.

"I know they're looking at it," Taylor said. "But I'm not sure what it is. I just think they're looking at numbers, the very early stages."

Taylor said a proposal in January's annual NCAA Convention to reduce the maximum Division II football scholarships from 36 to 24 could be part of UND's discussions.

"If something happens in Division II, they need to have a plan in place," he said.

UND's committee consists of Glas, Sampaio, Alumni Association development officer Rob Bollinger, head track and field coach Dick Clay, head football coach Dale Lennon, assistant volleyball coach Jason Holt and Ralph Engelstad Arena facility manager Mike Stromberg.

"It's more investigative," Bollinger said. "It's very harmless at this point."

But Bollinger said the Division II football scholarship proposal "is the reason it got more serious."

Bollinger said the committee is trying to answer:

- If UND went Division I, how would it do it?

- How would UND stack up to Division I schools in terms of facilities, salaries and number of sports?

- What conferences are out there?

- What is happening with conference affiliations?

- What will happen with future legislation with the Division II football vote?

Kupchella, previously provost at Southeast Missouri State, has said the difficulty in his last school moving from Division II to Division I is one reason he's not excited about UND making the move.

But in his response to the Big Sky's Fullerton in August, there is no mention to the effect of: "Thanks, but no thanks."

Thomas said he has never said "no" to Division I athletics.

"I've never said that," he said. "I think you have to look at it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546