Positive end to a difficult time: UND looks back on building blocks to full Division I status
GRAND FORKS -- If things go according to plan this summer, UND's five-year NCAA Division I transition is over.
In the final campaign, the University of North Dakota football team went 8-3 and captured a share of the Great West Conference title. The volleyball team won its third straight league tournament championship. The two basketball teams won their conference tournaments.
For some, the current successful state of the UND athletic department at the Division I level seemed like a distant dream five years ago.
"Who would think we'd be where we are today in the final lap of the transition?" UND athletic director Brian Faison said. "It's remarkable in terms of the competitiveness of our programs, the ability to perform in the classroom and the expansion of our community service."
Coinciding with the end of the transition, UND will also make the leap from the stopgap Great West Conference to the established Big Sky Conference in the fall.
Sioux volleyball coach Ashley Hardee, whose program made UND's most seamless move to Division I, is also surprised by the progress made during the transition.
"It's exceeded what I imagined," Hardee said.
The 2011-12 school year was a rewarding finish to a sometimes grueling process.
Every school making the leap from Division II to Division I had its own unique challenges. But few schools had as many obstacles as the Sioux -- even peer institutions down Interstate 29.
UND went through the grind of the transition during the national economic recession, with a damaging nickname battle lurking overhead and a cloudy picture of future conference options. All the while, opposing coaches gave recruits constant reminders of these troubles.
Local fans are familiar with relatively smooth Division I transitions as North Dakota State, South Dakota State and South Dakota have made similar moves in the past 10 years. But on the national level, the jump to Division I hasn't been nearly as easy as it has been for former members of the North Central Conference.
Look at men's basketball, for example. Since 2003, 22 schools have made the move up to Division I from Division II or the junior college ranks. UND is one of just five of those schools to have a winning season during the four full years of the Division I transition.
It's easy to overlook that UND is among a select group because most of the other four teams are familiar to the area (NDSU, USD, Utah Valley and Seattle). But there are 17 other schools without a single winning season -- and the Sioux did it three times.
Rough time recruiting
The two largest challenges of the transition are recruiting and scheduling. UND men's basketball coach Brian Jones refers to them as the lifeblood of a program.
"We had to have a lot of conversations with recruits and parents to explain the whole process," Hardee said.
Recruiting also caused a hit to UND's athletic budget. Faison said although each program remains focused on recruiting the Midwest, many teams need to recruit on the national level and there are costs associated with expanding recruiting.
Growing that recruiting base also presented unique trials to the football program, specifically, because of its sheer size. Football coaches were now asked to meld together roughly 100 athletes with completely different backgrounds and personalities.
Not only did those athletes have different upbringings, but because of differing scholarship rules in Division I a dynamic was created that made the new players appear (justifiably or not) entitled. Some young players received full scholarships immediately on campus whereas the remaining Division II recruits often had to earn their scholarship money as their careers progressed.
"The most difficult part of the entire transition was recruiting and what that meant within the team," Sioux football coach Chris Mussman said. "We weren't a team just because the guys had the same jersey. I took that for granted that we could tell kids 'this is how we do things at UND, and we've done it that way forever.' It was a challenge to get everyone pulling in the same direction. I didn't see that challenge coming."
That sometimes led to problems in the locker room during the 2010 season in which the Sioux stumbled to a 3-8 record.
The program now focuses on more team-building exercises, with the help of assistant coach and former Grand Forks Central head coach Mike Berg.
"It's not just about lifting weights together," Mussman said. "It's camaraderie. It's about respect. You don't have to be liked, but you should be respected."
UND's home for the transition, the Great West Conference, was a necessary evil. The conference didn't afford an automatic bid for postseason play, but the league did present a scheduling alliance. It also allowed UND to be eligible for postseason and weekly honors.
"I can't say thanks enough for what the Great West afforded us," Faison said. "They gave us a conference home for four years. That was important. Things would be much different if we hadn't had those opportunities."
But clearly the Great West wasn't ideal. The league is small. Therefore, when other programs are still playing their conference schedules the Sioux were out desperately looking for games.
The small league really hampered the football program, whose fan base couldn't connect with opponents such as Lamar, Stony Brook, Black Hills State and Sioux Falls.
"It was up one week, down another week," Mussman said. "That rollercoaster affected our guys. You play Fresno State, then Black Hills. That was difficult."
For the basketball teams, it meant being on the road a lot. The Sioux men had one home game in the entire month of December.
"It's a constant grind to stay moving forward and stay positive because of your schedule hurdles," Jones said. "You're constantly on the road. You're moving forward but it doesn't always feel like it."
Strong in school
When UND decided to go Division I, opponents of the move often cited weakening academics as a detractor.
Yet, numbers now reveal the Sioux have actually improved their grades during the transition.
During the final four years of the transition (the first year was an exploratory season), UND had cumulative grade-point averages of 3.156, 3.161, 3.154 and 3.153. In the final two years of Division II and the exploratory year, UND had cumulative GPAs of 3.132, 3.071 and 3.079.
Faison said he's been impressed with the academic standing, especially certain programs with a history of good performance in the classroom.
Faison had a story to prove his point.
He said early in the second semester this past winter the school honored all student-athletes who achieved a 3.0 GPA or better by introducing them in front of fans during a game. Faison picked halftime of a women's basketball game for the ceremony.
Former UND women's basketball coach Gene Roebuck approached his athletic director to say that wasn't going to work.
"I'm not going to have anyone in the locker room," Roebuck said.
"So we shuffled around and made it work," Faison said.
The steady academic numbers are particularly impressive for winter sports teams, whose seasons cross over into both semesters, Jones said.
"We spent two months gone from every Wednesday to Sunday," he said. "You're also playing over both semesters, so you don't have one to just focus on academics."
For the transition successes, Faison credits a staff he almost entirely put in place. Faison arrived at UND in 2008 when the school was expanding its athletic department to fill the Division I needs.
"It was a very unique opportunity frankly," Faison said. "I was able to get very quality people."
Faison also praised UND President Robert Kelley, who, along with his wife Marcia, frequent athletic events.
"He's been tremendous support and counsel for us," Faison said. "He has a vision for the role athletics can play as a part of the greater university. We're very appreciative of his support."
Putting it all together
On the field, the four major programs heading into the Big Sky at UND turned a corner in the final year of the transition.
-- The UND men's basketball team was 8-23 in the second year of the transition in 2009-10, followed with seasons of 19-15 and 17-15 despite the team's schedule growing increasingly tougher.
"We had a consistent message," Jones said. "We put a plan in place five years ago and the core principles of that never changed. We might have tinkered with it schematically, but the core aspects didn't change. If you go into this thing without a plan, you're going to be in big trouble."
-- After losing in two straight league championship games, the Sioux women's basketball team won the Great West tournament title for the first time in the transition in 2011-12.
-- The volleyball team raised its RPI from 139 in 2009 to 89 in 2010 and 52 in 2011.
-- The football program flipped its record from 3-8 in 2010 to 8-3 in 2011 and became nationally ranked for the first time, peaking at No. 18 in the Football Championship Subdivision polls.
"(Bouncing back) was huge for us," Mussman said. "You don't want to be involved in a losing season with the tradition we've had here."
Miller is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Fourm Communications Co.