SDSU to move to Division I athletics in summer of 2004

Jeremy Fugleberg

Jeremy Fugleberg

The last cord that bound South Dakota State University athletics to the North Central Conference is now severed.

On Aug. 15, SDSU forwarded letters to both the NCC and the National Collegiate Athletic Association announcing their intentions to leave the Division II NCC after the 2003-2004 season and move up to Division I.

The news comes as no surprise: SDSU has been planning a move to Division I for some time and has researched it in great detail, including an overall analysis conducted by an outside firm earlier this year that determined the school should upgrade to DI.

Fred Oien, SDSU Athletic Director, said the announcement’s timing was crucial due to a May decision by the NCC that changed the timeline for a member school’s departure from the conference.

“Any school that waited until after Sept. 1 of 2003, the new notification deadline became Dec. 31,” he said. “And instead of waiting twelve months, a school would have to wait eighteen months to leave the conference.”

Oien said that that beating the Sept. 1 deadline was also critical because it allowed SDSU to be in-sync with North Dakota State University’s similar move to DI. This is important because SDSU and NDSU, another breakaway NCC school, hope their ability to be travel partners will increase their value to a conference looking for teams.

Now that SDSU has declared it is withdrawing from the NCC and is moving up to DI, Oien said it would not be easy going back to Division II if events warranted.

“Everyone assumes that if you don’t go Division I then you go back to the NCC,” he said. “But we’re not a member of the North Central in 2004 and 2005, so they’d have to decide whether they’d even want us back. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

With the declaration out of the way, the priority now is to find a conference that will accept SDSU.

“We’re just talking to any conference that will talk to us,” Oien said. “There are no special invites from conferences to us at the moment.”

The Big Sky Conference, a group of mostly Rocky Mountain and West Coast teams, was approached earlier this year with no success. Oien insists that patience is required.

“Everyone — our constituents, our student athletes, our coaches — have said ‘let’s have a conference, let’s get on with it’,” he said. “Well, it just doesn’t work that way, you’ve got to accept, you’ve just got to understand, that’s the way it works.”

Asked about the SDSU community’s frustration at not finding a conference, Oien expressed his own frustration with what he considers his constituents: donors, fans and area residents.

“I think it’s tougher for constituents,” he said. “They maybe get five to 20 percent of the information. There is no way you can make a decision and rationalize how all this works, unless you are on the inside. It’s not a cut-and-dried deal.”

Oien refused to name conferences that the school was in contact with. He did say, however, that there was a fallback option if a DI conference was not found by next year: a loose conglomerate of seven schools that want to play at the DI level.

In June, those seven schools met to schedule each other in football for 2005 or 2006. The schools were San Luis Obispo, the University of California-Davis, and St. Mary’s (all in California), Southern Utah, the University of Northern Colorado, NDSU, and SDSU.

The schools will meet as early as this week to discuss how fast they will move on football scheduling.

“If we don’t get a conference that already has football, then that will be the option we’ll pursue,” Oien said. “Whether that turns into a full-time conference or not hasn’t been decided.”

SDSU first created a master plan for facilities in 1993. It became a five-year revolving plan that prioritized upgrades and new construction on campus. The plan included athletic buildings and grounds, but at that time, a move to Division I was just a far-off dream.

“In 1993 we didn’t know if we were going to be Division I,” Oien said. “Before we start any major projects we’re going to go back and revisit that plan with the help of a service.”

Oien said that there are about fifteen firms nationwide that will examine master plans to update priorities. SDSU has been in contact with several of those companies and will soon award the job.

“We’ve interviewed some firms who want to do the analysis for us,” he said. “We’re pretty close to awarding a contract.”

Oien said the analysis wouldn’t have been necessary if not for the move to DI.

“We probably would’ve used the plan we had in place if we’d stayed Division II,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re comfortable with what we have in the plan, but there might be some changes.”

Oien says the risks inherent in moving up to DI are worthwhile, especially with the solid backing of the SDSU leadership.

“Any forward thinking idea has risk, because you can’t control all the issues,” he said. “But you calculate what the risks are, and what the benefits are against those risks. … I don’t think there is anybody in the leadership of this university that would look back.”