Short Division I Tenure May Be Instructive
by Jerry Hinnen
It’s a debate that may very well have started as soon as intercollegiate athletics were invented. Perhaps right there on the sidelines of Princeton and Rutgers’ historic 1869 football clash, faculty and students alike were already wondering: can an institution of higher learning succeed at the highest levels both academically and athletically?
Put another way, can universities serve two masters – as the saying goes, and as opponents of big-budget athletics might phrase it, both God and mammon? As NCAA Division I athletics have become bigger and bigger business, the answer to that question has, over time, seemingly become a firmer and firmer “No.”
There are always exceptions, of course. But whether it’s a power forward gaining admittance to St. Bonaventure on the strength a welding certificate, the perennial football futility at Rutgers or Temple, or the “Last Amateurs” of the Patriot League finally playing for scholarship money, the majority of evidence has indicated that schools (particularly smaller ones) can either uphold their academic standards or their athletic standards – or join the difficult, never-ending struggle to do both. This June, that struggle claimed its most recent victim, now former Big South Conference member and future Division III participant Birmingham-Southern College.
Birmingham-Southern, or BSC as the school is often referred to, has had a long and distinguished athletic tradition. Its football teams routinely lined up against Auburn and Alabama before World War II. Its proud men’s basketball program peaked during the 1990s as under head coach Duane Reboul the Panthers took both the ’90 and ’95 NAIA national titles. By the mid-’90s Brian Shoop and Preston Goldfarb had turned BSC’s baseball and men’s soccer teams, respectively, into national championship contenders as well.
Academically, under the leadership of longtime president Dr. Neal Berte BSC emerged from a period of uncertainty to become one of the Southeast’s leading liberal arts colleges. A substantially increased endowment helped the small campus on Birmingham’s west side see a construction boom in the mid-to-late ’90s, with dedications for a number of state-of-the-art buildings and plans finalized for a new multi-million dollar science building.
Amidst these kinds of successes, it’s not surprising that Berte’s 1999 announcement that the Board of Trustees had approved a plan to move BSC from NAIA to NCAA Division I was met with ample – if not unbridled – optimism. The school would have to dramatically increase its athletic budget, remodel and expand nearly all its facilities, find a conference, and spend the requisite several years wandering the post-seasonless wilderness of ‘provisional’ NCAA membership. Some wondered if the intangible rewards of competing in Division I – a raised national, regional, and city-wide profile, fielding the best athletics team possible for a school of BSC’s size – were worth the very tangible millions of dollars it would take to make the leap.
But with images of the Panthers taking the court or field in various NCAA Tournaments creating excitement throughout the BSC community, the leap was made. And on the surface, things went perfectly according to plan. New athletic director (and Jefferson-Pilot SEC hoops color analyst) Joe Dean Jr. helped BSC quickly find membership in the Big South Conference. Expansion projects involving the soccer, baseball, and basketball facilities were each completed on time. The baseball team provided the perfect sending-off by winning the NAIA national title in their final year of eligibility.
And once BSC started Division I play, the Panthers’ on-court successes were beyond what almost anyone expected. The brand-new women’s basketball team was immediately competitive, as were other several other new sports. The baseball and men’s soccer teams immediately put their stamp on both the Big South and national scene, with baseball qualifying for the school’s first NCAA Tournament in 2004. Women’s soccer followed suit the following season. The previous winter, in only their first year of full NCAA membership, the men’s hoops team had shared the Big South regular season crown and earned ESPN.com’s endorsement for the league’s first NIT bid. For the next two years, despite being Division I’s fourth-smallest institution, BSC appeared to be the model for a successful transition: successful programs across the board, growing fan interest, popular coaches, national press.
Then, last May, the Division I program BSC had put so much effort and money into building came suddenly crashing down.
Dr. David Pollick, sworn in as BSC’s new president in summer 2004, started taking a closer look at BSC’s debt-fueled and increasingly threatening cash crunch in the early stages of this year. He claims that he found a much darker side to BSC’s apparently seamless move to D-I: that the school’s athletics department was reportedly running a staggering $5-5.7 million yearly deficit, nearly equal to the department’s $6.5 million entire annual budget.
According to Pollick, expenditures for building and maintaining the D-I program had run far beyond the school’s initial estimates. He recommended to the Board of Trustees that the school shelve its budding top-level programs and move to non-scholarship NCAA Division III.
When the news broke that the Board of Trustees was poised to dismantle the Division I program, only a few short days before the deciding vote reaction was fierce on either side of the debate. Students and athletes protested in favor of saving the program, various Panthers telling news cameras they would likely not have attended BSC without their athletic scholarships. The BSC faculty voted in favor of the move, pointing out that the school could hardly claim to cherish academics while spending more on athletic scholarships than academic. Dean and the shocked athletics department prepared a presentation for the Board and vocally opposed the move. Pollick pointed out that BSC’s academic peers were not the large universities that made up the Big South but the liberal arts colleges like Rhodes, Centre, and Sewanee, that made up its likely new home in Division III, the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Opponents responded that quality, i.e. scholarship athletics had always had a special place at BSC that they did not at long-time DIII schools.
In the end, the Board sided with Pollick. Current and ex-athletes ripped the President in the pages of the Birmingham News. “This is a very poor decision motivated by one man’s – David Pollick’s – selfish agenda,” said one former baseball player. Dean expressed his disappointment but promised to soldier on. The parent of one recruit blasted Pollick for keeping the financial deliberations secret while his daughter made her plans to enroll at what she believed would be a Division I school. Angry letters to the editor appeared in the News almost immediately.
The BSC athletics department predictably splintered within days. Shoop moved across town to coach the UAB Blazers, taking a number of his BSC players with him. (The blog of one former BSC baseball player changed its background colors from BSC’s black-and-gold to UAB’s green.) Players from virtually every team on campus transferred out in droves. Dean was forced to announce that due to the transfers, neither the baseball nor men’s basketball teams would compete in 2006-2007. And on July 13, Reboul stepped down after 17 years on the BSC sidelines, admitting that the “changes” in the program’s direction had led to his decision.
So what does Birmingham-Southern have to show for their six years of effort and dedication to the ideal of competing at the highest athletic level? Mounting bills for state-of-the-art facilities that will be out-of-place and unnecessarily large in Division III. A divided and in many cases disgruntled alumni base. The loss of several talented coaches. A president that many in the BSC community no longer trust. And for fans of Reboul and his basketball team, the bitter taste of knowing how attainable the now-abandoned goal of an NCAA Tournament berth had already become.
A quick scan of U.S. News and World Report‘s rankings of top liberal arts colleges show that not many of these top academic schools take their athletics Division I seriously. Following BSC’s decision, only 9 of the top 100 compete at the D-I level. But that number is about to return to 10: in a move unrelated to BSC’s departure, Presbyterian College of South Carolina is readying for a move into the Big South.
Presbyterian’s decision is, certainly, based on a desire to pursue excellence athletically as well as academically. Balancing those two pursuits as an institution will be, as always, a noble goal. But if PC is doing any double-checking as to how realistic that goal is, contacting schools like St. Bonaventure and Tulane and Vanderbilt, they should make sure to look up the connection to a certain school in Birmingham as well.