UNA starts transition to Division I
By David Knox, Sports Editor
The University of North Alabama affirmed last week to proceed with a long-studied plan to move into the world of big-time college basketball and FCS football.
More than five years after the topic first surfaced publicly, the UNA Board of Trustees unanimously affirmed that the school will accept an invitation from the Atlantic Sun Conference to play basketball and most other sports and play football in the Big South Conference as the school begins the transition to an NCAA Division I status.
UNA will begin its four-year transitional period into Division I in the fall of 2018.
UNA is a charter member of the Gulf South Conference and has been a member of NCAA Division II since it was formed in 1972. UNA will remain in the Gulf South and Division II through the 2017-18 academic year.
Thirteen of UNA’s athletic teams will compete in the A-Sun. The football program will compete in the Big South Conference — at the Football Championship Subdivision level (formerly called Division I-AA) — which formed a football alliance with the Atlantic Sun earlier this year.
Most conferences that sponsor basketball either do not play football or play at the FCS level. The A-Sun does not, hence the need for the alliance with the Big South.
UNA cannot, nor can any school, play Division II in football and Division I (FBS or FCS) in basketball. That NCAA rule was designed to keep a small school (athletics-wise) from cashing in on the TV and basketball tournament lottery monies. The NCAA powers want schools to be serious before fielding a DI football program.
So the move to a fancier neighborhood comes with a price tag; UNA will pay a $1.57 million NCAA application fee to move to Division I athletics that is due by June 2017. It will be paid by current athletic department reserves and will not require university assistance, according to UNA Athletics Director Mark Linder.
Additional expenses will be incurred as the UNA athletic department grows its annual operating budget to a more comparable level with other Division I programs. Linder said UNA athletics supplements its annual allocation with $1.5 million in additional funding raised through sponsorships, fundraising, and ticket sales.
That figure needs to grow to over $3 million annually by 2022 to be in line with other A-Sun athletic budgets. Linder estimates that about $900,000 will come from conference funding and game payouts. The remaining $700,000 will need to come from corporate sponsorships, fundraising, and ticket sales.
The university will need to up its athletic scholarships from 121 to 180 by fall of 2022 to be in line with NCAA Division I regulations.
The Atlantic Sun basketball league has eight member institutions. UNA will become the ninth member and the seventh football-playing member of the Big South. The A-Sun footprint reaches into seven of the top 50 media markets in the nation.
UNA will continue as a member of the Gulf South Conference at the Division II level through this school year and next year, 2017-2018.
UNA President Ken Kitts emphasized that the move is about the entire university and not just the athletic program.
“This is an exciting time for Lion athletics, the university as a whole, and the communities we serve,” Kitts said. “The move to Division I will help sustain enrollment, expand our fan base, and bring much-needed visibility for this wonderful institution.”
“We’re determined to spread the word about the amazing things we have going on at UNA, so if prospective students learn about us from a sports ticker, great.”
Schools in the A-Sun are: Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville University (Fla.), Kennesaw State University, Lipscomb University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina Upstate and Stetson University.
Current Big South Conference football membership includes core members Charleston Southern University, Gardner-Webb University, Liberty University and Presbyterian College plus associate football-only institutions Kennesaw State University and Monmouth University. Campbell University will join the league as a football member in the fall of 2018.
Although UNA has enjoyed tremendous athletic success at DII, winning seven national championships, 29 regional titles and 69 conference championships, most of the university’s peers and rivals have left the classification.
Many of those are now in the A-Sun, Big South, Sun Belt, Ohio Valley or Southern conferences. Even the SWAC (Alabama A&M and Alabama State) moved to FCS level.
Of those conferences, only the Sun Belt is DI in basketball and FBS in football.
Jacksonville State and Samford are at the level UNA wishes to approach; Troy is FBS in football, as are UAB and South Alabama.
There are only six DII schools left in Alabama – UAH, Montevallo, Miles, Stillman, Tuskegee and West Alabama. There are just seven in Tennessee and but one in Mississippi.
The move will ultimately make scheduling easier in football, since UNA will be able to schedule FBS opponents such as UAB or Troy or Alabama, even, for big-money guarantees. It also helps scheduling in basketball, since UNA will be able to schedule big-name opponents on the road and gain recognition; plus the status that would result with an NCAA Tournament berth.