Time and again, Gene Taylor found himself reaching for the same familiar cliché. As North Dakota State athletic director, he often reminded colleagues that the program’s transition from NCAA Division II to Division I was going to be a marathon, not a sprint.
It didn’t take long, though, to realize that adage was woefully inadequate. “I said it a million times,” recalled Taylor, now the AD at Kansas State. “Every time I walked out of a room after I said it, I was like … ‘How long is this marathon going to last?’ It felt like a double marathon at times.”
As someone who has been through the process, Taylor has provided some counsel for Phil Esten, the St. Thomas athletic director who soon could be guiding the Tommies from Division III to Division I. Among Taylor’s insights: It’s going to cost far more money than Esten might think. He’s going to need steadfast support from university administration. He must be prepared to stand strong in the face of skepticism from some fans, faculty and the community.
This week, at the NCAA convention, the Tommies expect to gain more clarity on how — or even whether — NCAA rules will be changed to allow their direct move from D-III to D-I. As Esten plots a course forward, he can draw on the experience of Taylor and other athletic directors who have guided schools through reclassification.
Esten said St. Thomas already is laying some groundwork. It is examining best-practice models at other Division I schools, and athletic department leaders are studying the changes they will have to make to conform to D-I standards in areas such as compliance, marketing and facilities.
“It’s a pretty steep hill to climb,” Esten said. “But we’re starting to gain a really good sense of what Division I would look like for us. We’ve already made progress.”
Dan O’Brien, a former Gophers assistant football coach, was the athletic director at Concordia (St. Paul) when it moved from NAIA to NCAA Division II in the late 1990s. A St. Thomas alumnus, he believes the Tommies can make the leap successfully, if not easily.
“At Concordia, we found out pretty quickly that we were going to need a lot more money,” he said. “Finding the funding — and having the support of the [school’s] president and board — is the biggest thing.
“I think St. Thomas is in a unique situation. With the campus, the location and some of the resources it has now, I think it can become competitive in some sports very quickly [in Division I], in a two- to three-year period. But they have a lot of decisions ahead of them.”
Taylor told Esten to be prepared for a significant budget increase from the start. He said North Dakota State’s athletic budget was about $5 million when he arrived in 2001. It rose to about $9 million in 2004-05, the school’s first year in Division I, and reached $15 million within four years.
Today, Taylor said, that number stands at about $25 million. While St. Thomas does not disclose its athletic budget, it reported total athletic expenses of $4.86 million in its 2017-18 Equity in Athletics Data Analysis report.
“The financial investment is huge,” Taylor said. “That’s why you have to have everybody on board, from the president to the faculty to the campus to the community. Because if you don’t, it gets difficult.”
Taylor estimated St. Thomas’ athletic budget would have to rise to about $10 million “pretty quickly.” At NDSU, he said the additional money came from a variety of sources.
The university pitched in a couple million dollars. Money from student fees rose from the $250,000-$300,000 range to more than a million dollars, and changes were made to the sponsorship program. The athletic department’s fundraising arm, Team Makers, also had to aim much higher.
At the D-II level, the $750,000 it took in annually was considered impressive. Taylor said Team Makers chief Pat Simmers “looked at me like I had two heads” when he told Simmers that number was going to have to grow to $3 million. Last year, Team Makers generated $5.3 million for NDSU sports.
“We got there pretty quickly, and a majority of it came from external sources,” Taylor said. “Plus, football got successful, and that helped a ton. All of that just kind of fell together for us, but it doesn’t always fall together.”
O’Brien experienced the same kind of sticker shock at Concordia. In addition to athletic scholarship costs, there were additional expenses with the move from NAIA to NCAA Division II that O’Brien hadn’t considered.
“One mistake we made at Concordia was that we didn’t allocate as much money as we should have for recruiting,” he said. “That will be a big piece for St. Thomas, because it’s probably going to recruit more nationally [in Division I].
“Travel costs will go up, because there will be more airplane trips, hotel stays and food. Coaching salaries have to be competitive with the schools you’re competing against. Where you might have one compliance officer now, you’re probably going to need three or four, plus more people in academic support. And those are only some of the things you have to think about.”
In addition to the costs, institutions that are reclassifying must navigate a long list of NCAA protocols. Taylor recalled doing reams of required paperwork, such as strategic plans and reports on how the school would comply with Title IX, academic eligibility and other issues.
At the University of Texas at Tyler, athletic director Dr. Howard Patterson said it’s been a “learning curve’’ for his entire campus as the school transitions from D-III to D-II. UT Tyler, now in the second year of the process, had to revise all its policy handbooks to reflect Division II rules. Its coaches, employees and athletes have had to study hundreds of pages of regulations that are new to them.
Some officials, such as the director of compliance and faculty athletic representative, have found their responsibilities are more significant in D-II. The school also has had to add administrative staff in several areas.
“You might think it’s just the athletic department that’s going to Division II,’’ Patterson said. “But it’s the whole university.
“Enrollment, financial aid, admissions, the registrar, all those offices are affected, too. Year 1 is a continual education process, and it’s a lot of work.’’
Taylor said St. Thomas has one critical ingredient for a smooth transition already in place: an invitation to join the Summit League. The Bison were without a conference affiliation for two years until the Summit League welcomed them in 2007.
Still, NDSU quickly became successful in football, which helped drive overall revenue. That sprung from a conscious choice, Taylor said. Rather than gradually increase scholarships and coaching staffs, the Bison made it a priority to fund the maximum as soon as possible.
“We found the money for it, though I don’t remember how,” Taylor said. “You have to be aggressive in investing in your student-athletes and your coaching staffs. If you’re not aggressive, it will cost you.”
Winning also helped convert the 70% of the NDSU fan base that Taylor said was “absolutely opposed” to the move to D-I. Joe Chapman, the university’s president at the time, forged ahead despite heavy criticism. At St. Thomas, President Julie Sullivan has expressed full backing for the reclassification effort, and Esten said he has “felt support across the board” for the choice, even from those who would have preferred a different vision.
Taylor has told Esten to call him any time for advice. Having completed one reclassification marathon, though, he is happy to be giving encouragement from the sidelines.
“I tell people all the time, it was the best experience I’ve ever had,” Taylor said, laughing. “But I would never do it again.”