USD Coyotes to join SDSU in Division I

Travis Kriens

Travis Kriens

Starting next season, SDSU will not be the only Division I school in South Dakota.

On Nov. 29, 2006, the University of South Dakota announced that it would be making the move to Division I athletics. The South Dakota Board of Regents unanimously voted in favor of the move by a 9-0 vote on Dec. 14, 2006. USD’s hand was forced since they had no choice but to make the jump. In the past five years, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Northern Colorado and North Dakota all announced that they were moving up to Division I, leaving USD with no strong rivals and forcing the North Central Conference to close its doors after 86 years.

Mick Garry has been the Coyotes beat writer for the Argus Leader since 1990 and thinks that the exit of schools from the NCC has been the biggest factor in USD’s decision.

“USD’s move to Division I was dictated by the demise of the North Central Conference more than anything else. Because SDSU’s and NDSU’s departure from that conference played a part in the league’s demise, certainly the actions of SDSU and NDSU had an effect on USD’s decision-making process,” he said. “But if the NCC had remained with schools like UND, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud and Minnesota State included, USD would have stayed in Division II, regardless of what SDSU and NDSU did. Some might argue that, but if the Jacks’ and the Bison’s actions were the immediate cause, USD would have pulled the trigger sooner on Division I. Instead they waited until the conference unraveled, which in my mind means that the NCC’s folding was a bigger factor.”

The move to Division I has already seen a change at head coach for the women’s basketball team. Chad Lavin announced before the season that the 2007-08 season would be his last, citing personal reasons. Lavin’s last season on the bench was his most successful. The Coyotes reached the Division II national championship game with a record of 33-2, losing to Northern Kentucky 63-58. (The same Northern Kentucky that SDSU defeated to win the D-II National Championship in 2003). Ryun Williams, the winningest women’s basketball coach in Wayne State (Neb.) history and former USD player, was named Lavin’s replacement last week.

Neither the women’s or men’s Coyote basketball teams will be under Division I scheduling requirements in 2008-09 during the first year of transition.

On the football side, USD will follow in SDSU’s footsteps by becoming a member of the Great West Football Conference. USD, along with UND, has agreed to join the league for a minimum of five years. With SDSU and NDSU leaving the GWFC for the Gateway Football Conference, the Great West had only three teams remaining (UC Davis, Cal Poly and Southern Utah).

USD has found out that scheduling quality teams in Division I-AA football is not as easy as they would have hoped. The 2008 football season will see the Coyotes play one Division II team as well as three NAIA schools.

“It is by the most difficult year for scheduling,” USD Athletic Director Joel Nielsen said. “Our fans need to be patient; they will see opponents in the DakotaDome that are part of a one-year scheduling process. That’s just part of this transition.”

“The early challenges SDSU had with scheduling will not be any smoother at USD,” said Garry. “The Coyotes have five home football games next year, and none of them are going to be very good other than the North Dakota game. The following year they’ll be fine, but that 2008 football home football schedule is really going to be dreadful.”

While the Jacks transition has been relatively smooth, Argus Leader’s SDSU beat writer Terry Vandrovec said that some luck does not hurt.

“For all the planning and hard work that is required during the transition, luck plays a large role. Had Chicago State and Valparaiso not left the Summit League, SDSU and NDSU might very well yet be independents, and the transition would be viewed as far less successful,” he said.

The University, which boasts famous graduates such as Tom Brokaw, Bill Janklow and Al Neuharth, was fortunate that the GWFC had a home for them in football. Although there are 14 other Coyote teams, could the Summit League have an opening for the Coyotes when the transition ends?

“I think overall USD’s transition will be similar to SDSU’s in that once a conference affiliation is secured, things will go pretty smooth,” said Garry.

“I think that USD will have to wait a while to join the Summit League or some other conference,” he said. “USD and UND may very well wait quite a spell for that to happen. I think it will happen, though.”

Garry continued, “The Summit League has some good schools as far as competitiveness and fan support is concerned, but they have some real dead-beats, too. I have always thought the Mid-Con/Summit League would see the benefits of having schools like UND and USD eventually, particularly when they represent ready-made rivalries with the Jacks and the Bison. I’m sure that USD and UND are in a much bigger hurry for this to happen than the Summit League is, though. Patience will be the key there. I’m guessing USD will complete its five-year transition process before the school joins a conference, although I have no more insight into that than anyone on the street.”

SDSU’s transition was unprecedented as the women’s basketball team became the first from a school in transition to be selected for a post season tournament, making the WNIT the last two seasons. The football team won the Great West Football Conference in 2007, its first conference title in football since 1963.

“USD’s transition will be easier in that they’ve been given a road map by SDSU,” said Garry. “The public is better educated about what goes into it this time around. No one from USD, for instance, made any noise about having a conference ready before making the move. They got to see SDSU’s initial struggles up close in that regard; the expectations of the university, the regents and the fan base have been a little more reasonable.”

“Competitively, I think SDSU has proven that nationally prominent programs in Division II football and women’s basketball have a better shot at being competitive than men’s basketball,” he said. “I would guess that will be similar for USD, although I really doubt the Coyotes will be able to match the success of the SDSU women’s basketball program during the transition.”

Only time will tell if USD can match the success that SDSU has had in making the jump to Division I.