Money aside, DSU must strive for more athletically
Dickinson State's athletic expectations are decidedly tempered as it prepares to move into the Frontier Conference.
There is an overwhelming consensus among DSU coaches that the Blue Hawks can be competitive in their new league. But, many say contending for conference championships will take some time.
"We've competed against these teams, so it's not like we're going into the situation blind," Dickinson State athletic director Tim Daniel said. "We've played them in preseason or we've played them in postseason in football. We're going to have to make that adjustment to compete on a week-to-week basis. There's no doubt that the competitive level of the competition out there is extremely high."
When DSU officially joins the Frontier on July 1, it will rank last in the average amount of scholarships and aid it can give to student-athletes, which stands to make matters difficult for the Blue Hawks until they can catch up.
That will no doubt take time.
In the Dakota Athletic Conference, which dissolves after the end of this school year, DSU was able to stand out as one of the premier institutions despite ranking in the middle of the league in scholarship dollars.
When DSU was in the DAC, winning conference championships was a possibility in seemingly every sport. In fact, competing for those titles remains an athletic department priority. Athletes are told that in their first team meetings each season and coaching success is judged on the ability to hang banners.
In 13 seasons in the DAC, DSU men's teams won 29 conference titles, including seven in football, while women's team won 23.
Daniel said winning titles is the biggest reason why DSU officials decided that a move to the Frontier was the athletic department's best chance for success. After all, he said, it beats plodding along as an independent like Blue Hawk teams did this past school year.
"Our criteria for our sports here is to compete for a conference championship, from football in the fall to track and field and baseball and softball in the spring, that's our number one objective for all our sports," Daniel said. "If you compete for a conference championship and are fortunate enough to win it, all the other postseason stuff is going to take care of itself. That's ultimately why we wanted to be in a conference. We didn't have options to go (NCAA) Division II. There were no Division II conferences that we could get into. We knew the avenue of being an independent is not a positive situation because you struggle with scheduling contests."
However, for many Frontier Conference teams, winning league titles isn't the primary goal.
Most teams there are looking for a much bigger trophy at the end of the season.
Think of it in these terms: if the Dakota Athletic Conference was comparable to Conference USA or the Mountain West, then the Frontier is like the Big East or the Pac-12.
Frontier teams make it a point to compete for national championships.
"You talk about the caliber of play," DSU men's basketball coach Ty Orton said, whose team had a 2-8 record against Frontier teams last season. "Nothing against the teams we were playing before, but now you're talking about national title contenders."
The difficulty that awaits in the Frontier hasn't escaped anyone, including DSU President D.C. Coston.
"Carroll is ranked No. 2 in the country in football and we have two opportunities to see if we can change that -- yikes -- upcoming this fall," Coston said with a chuckle, referring to the two games the Blue Hawks have scheduled against the six-time NAIA champion Saints. "That becomes a challenge and, frankly, being sure that everyone understands what it's going to take to be successful at that is a piece of it."
Until scholarship dollars improve, DSU coaches know they must be crafty in their recruiting.
Long-time football coach Hank Biesiot said his recruiting philosophy hasn't changed with the shift to the Frontier and added that his team will continue targeting the same caliber of players it always has, including those being recruited by NCAA Division I or higher-level teams.
"You have to target them," he said. "You have to make legitimate runs. We've always did that. We've never used the term, 'at this level,' here. You have to try and get the best guys you can."
Unfortunately for DSU, it will transition into the Frontier after one of the most mediocre years in its recent athletic history.
Success was difficult for Blue Hawk teams to come by in the 2011-12 season.
Wrestling was the only sport where DSU ended the year in the NAIA coaches' poll. The Blue Hawks finished the season ranked No. 12 out of 37 teams. It wasn't the team's best year, but not its worst by any means either.
The only Blue Hawk team even flirting with finishing the season with a winning record is softball, which has a 25-21 record as of Saturday. They are playing in the Association of Independent Institutions Tournament next weekend.
The baseball team finished the spring just short of a winning record and even the teams that don't play games or matches -- track and field, cross country and golf -- had their struggles competing without a conference.
However, the most noticeable woes came in DSU's four top revenue-producing sports.
The football team had just its third losing season in 35 years, both the men's and women's basketball teams finished well below .500 and the volleyball team didn't win a match.
Above all else, those four sports must become annually competitive in the Frontier in order for DSU's move to be considered a success.
"It's a change for Dickinson State, but it creates a new set of opportunities for us," Coston said of university's move to the Frontier. "Hopefully we step up and are successful."