Jason Dannelly Selects Winners of the First Round of the NAIA Football Championship Series

10339739_1703721843187182_1827114446610379474_nWe’ve been on the “road” for so many years that its odd for me to envision a “race” to the NAIA National Championship. Especially given the driving conditions I had cross country the last few years getting to Rome. Although two buses stranded on I-75 in Georgia and the stories from all those involved is still one of my favorite memories from 2010.

But this year the NAIA will embark on the first of three title games in Daytona Beach aptly title the “Race to Daytona.” Previous incarnations of the game saw us on the “Road to Savannah” and the “Road to Rome.” The racing moniker fits the host and also the attitude of several of the NAIA’s best who are definitely in the fast lane towards the NAIA title game. (See what I did there?)

It’s so tough for me to pick any major upsets in the first round of the NAIA Football Championship Series in any given year. Typically if you select the chalk, you are bound to get five or six of the eight games correct. Last year the only upset was Tabor defeating Benedictine in the first round (11 over an 8). In 2012 there were two upsets, same with 2011.

But that’s not to say the NAIA postseason doesn’t go without it’s occasional craziness. In 1998, five underdogs garnered victories in the NAIA’s opening round of the championship series seeing the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 teams in the county knocked off in game one of the postseason. This led to a national championship game where the No. 8 Azusa Pacific Cougars won their first national championship game over the No. 11 Olivet Nazarene Tigers. Continue reading

157 Moments that Shaped My NAIA Experience

My first experience with the NAIA came in 1996 when I went to watch my brother play college football at Dana College. He redshirted his first year, so I didn’t actually get to see him play that fall but my Dad and I went to a bunch of the games anyway just so we could get a chance to watch his team play.

Two year’s later I joined him and started playing college football at the NAIA level. I’m not trying to romanticize what my time associated with the NAIA has been because there have been as many downs for me as there has been ups. Like anything in life, you learn from the downs and probably remember the ups for a little bit more than they actually were.

Even though I started watching my brother in 1996, I probably didn’t really know what the NAIA was until 1999 or 2000. That’s when I got started working more college media events and was traveling as the radio voice of Dana College and Midland Lutheran College women’s basketball (now Midland University)

Despite stepping away from the day-to-day duties of the Victory Sports Network a few years ago it seems like I will always be associated with VSN and the NAIA. I’ve written, broadcast and covered professional sports, NCAA sports and high schools sports but regardless of all of that people always ask me about the NAIA.

That’s both good and bad. It’s nice to be considered the person who is the “beat writer” for NAIA athletics because information flows your way more frequently than it would say if you were just a college sports writer. But in the same respect, any article I write on any other subject is discounted because I’m “that NAIA writer.”

I hated that people feel that way about the NAIA because of the truly magnificent things that are accomplished at this level of athletics. And before the haters come out of the wood work to say “well DII and DIII do the blah blah blah same” I want to assure you that I am not discounting any of the efforts that take place at those levels. All I’m saying is when you have the blue oval and those four white letters behind you, you are already ahead of your fellow small college counterparts in the NAIA. If you don’t believe me, ask the enrollment driven schools of DII and DIII to remove all mention of their collegiate affiliation from their marketing materials and their coaches recruiting pitches for one year and see how it affects recruitment.

I’ve personally heard coaches say to recruits “well, we’re NCAA DII now… “ and talk down about members in the NAIA. Meanwhile they walk these recruits past trophy cases filled with NAIA hardware.

My experience the NAIA has been a wild ride. I never set out to start a web site that would become a national leader in NAIA news and opinions. All I wanted to do was have a message board where people could come and talk about NAIA football. I literally started the site because I wasn’t able to take the day after the fourth of July off in 2002 and I went into work at an office where I was the only person around. So I jumped on that crappy office Compaq computer and started a message board.

I started thinking about the start of VSN lately and all of the things that I have seen happen. I’ve never really sat down and shared those moments with people because I thought I was too busy and didn’t have the time. Sure, some of these moments are a lot more special to me than they are the NAIA, its members or people within the division. The point is that everyone has a list of great memories at this level and I think if they actually sat down and wrote them out they would understand how very special the NAIA level is and that people should never write off the experience just because it happens to take place at a level of college athletics that isn’t the NCAA.

1. Meeting fans that are truly passionate about the NAIA. It’s rare you meet people that have knowledge of NAIA athletics, so when you do it’s like Christmas. Especially when it is in a random place and they happen to be wearing a t-shirt from some obscure college that you happen to be the only person in the room to know.

2. That moment you look out of the University of Sioux Falls charter plane to Helena, Mont. and see what looks like a sidewalk cleared for you to land on.

3. Freddy T’s during the old NAIA Championship Site in Savannah, Tenn.

4. Old Havana Cigar Bar in Rome, Ga.

5. Pounds upon pounds of crab legs and oysters at Jefferson’s in Rome, Ga.

6. Joe Barker and the patented “MOVE those chains” when the NAIA football championship was in Savannah.

7. The 6th Floor of the Pickwick Inn and trading stories with David Long after the Banquet.

8. Being able to call some of the best athletic directors in the country your friend.

9. Going out for a night on the town in Helena, Mont with fans and alumni.

10. The Marysville House outside of Helena with the world’s simplest and best menu: Steak, Seafood, Chicken, Pork.

11. Before KC Power and Lights, meeting all the NAIA DI MBB Coaches at Tanners or the Quaaf.

12. The occasional jar of Apple Pie from a coaching staff in Kentucky.

13. Seeing schools for the first time in 2002 and seeing how much they have built or improved in the last 12 years.

14. Watching football programs be built and overnight become national powers.

15. Having Andy Lambert (Sterling College) coach one of your teams in the VSN Senior Classic and realizing what a truly special coach he is.

16. The first time you hear the high school bands in Municipal Auditorium in KC.

17. The Georgetown College band at the NAIA DI MBB tournament.

18. Enjoying a late night pie run to Perkins with assistant football coaches the night before a football game.

19. The day I met Matt Zimmer, the football beat writer for former NAIA member University of Sioux Falls. I haven’t met another writer who was as gifted, funny and fearless as Zim. He has a writing style that should have him writing nationally and as well as for the Argus Leader.

20. Being able to have a personal relationship with Bruce Brown when he was the NAIA’s Champions of Character presenter. If parents, coaches and athletes enacted to 10 percent of Bruce’s message, athletics in general would be completely different. Don’t believe me? Check out proactivecoaching.info

21. Walking into the NAIA’s old Olathe headquarters and listening to the manufacturing of Honeywell products.

22. Having former Saint Francis (Ind.) QB Eric Hooks help me calm the victims of a car accident that happened right outside the hotel for our VSN Senior Game.

23. Meeting Kevin Donley of Saint Francis (Ind.) and feeling like you were instantly accepted into his family.

24. Running into NAIA coaches at a White Castle in Louisville, Ky. during football coaches’ convention and pounding down greasy sliders with them.

25. Having the opportunity to hire my staff when College Fanz bought VSN and developing some of the best friendships of my life with those co-workers.

26. Having one of those coworkers bust into your hotel room the night before a broadcast, jump on your bed and slap you across the face because you decided to go home early.

27. Seeing the Shiloh Civil War Memorial and getting a guided tour of the grounds.

28.  Ruining a pair of new Nike shoes because you were shooting photos at what is now known as “The Mud Bowl.”

29. Being able to brag (to no one at all) that you were at every game of the NAIA basketball tournament from Wednesday morning through Saturday night.

30. Meeting a broadcaster who thought he could announce every one of those games and watching him go down in flames four games in.

31. Going on a spring football tour and meeting former Paul Quinn head coach Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley and even though I spoke to him on the phone several times, including the day before I arrived, he had no idea who I was or why I was there.

32. Being able to get the cell phone number of hundreds of coaches and having them actually pick up when you call. (My friends hit “ignore”)

33. Driving up to a school to broadcast a game and having the entire crew say “so, where are we broadcasting from?”

34. The Cozy Inn in Salina, Kan.

35. The bathroom experience in McPherson, Kan. where there might have been a bomb exploded due to point No. 34 of this list.

36. Having to swat and kill a bat that was flying in my room in the “President’s House” at Geneva College. Then realizing my life had become Chris Farley’s from “Black Sheep”.

37. Meeting Frosty Westering before he passed away and having multiple phone conversations with him.

38. Having an autographed copy of “Make the Big Time Where You Are” with a personal note from Frosty.

39. Meeting so many people whose lives were touched by Frosty.

40. Meeting a person who was an NAIA staffer and not getting off on the right foot only to turn into great friends years later.

41. Meeting NAIA staff you still consider to be friends regardless of your differences.

42. Effie Burgers in Lewiston, Idaho.

43. Randomly meeting Greg Beachner on the sidelines of Sioux Falls football games and eventually hiring his extremely talented son to work for VSN.

44. Meeting an MidAmerica Nazarene graduate on the VSN message boards and eventually hiring him as the business’s CPA.

45. Being able to attend the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho and realize what a truly special event it is.

46. Ed Cheff. Enough said.

47. Watching your alma mater win a national championship in wrestling.

48. Watching a member of that national championship team become a world champion in the UFC.

49. Knowing the first members of the NAIAFootball.net message board personally.

50. Becoming great friends with some of those members.

51. Broadcasting a football game with one of those members.

52. Taking photos with the College Fanz Crew with our “fans” at a McDonalds in Missouri Valley…extremely hungover.

53. Meeting and having a conversation with Jim Spivey, an NAIA basketball legend.

54. Hearing Ray Harper from Oklahoma City University tell the story of how he got hired to the person that hired him and not remember the last time you laughed that hard.

55. Meeting the guy that hired him, Jim Abbott, and realizing how truly great he is at his job.

56. Meeting the people that started the DII and DIII web sites.

57. Being able to shut up and listen when you sit down at a table of some of the best minds in small college athletics.

58. Watching the TV show “Justified” and know the towns they are talking about because you’ve been to Williamsburg, Corbin and Barbourville.

59. Standing on the sideline when Saint Xavier University won the NAIA football championship and seeing Mike Feminis jump into his assistant coaches’ arms.

60. Putting a microphone on Gary Wagner of Carroll College and listening to his every word.

61. Watching coaches start in the NAIA and move up into prominent jobs in DI.

62. Broadcasting NAIA DI basketball games with coaches who have just been eliminated.

63. Watching those coaches come into their own behind the mic and eventually turn into sports talk show hosts.

64. Watching a SportsCenter Top 10 and seeing a highlight and instantly knowing its an NAIA team.

65. Texting the coach of the NAIA team on SportsCenter to give them a bad time about it.

66. The great “Ice Storm” that left Sioux Falls and Carroll College stuck on the interstate in Georgia and the tweets and text messages that followed.

67. Fan meet ups at random.

68. Actually driving on the “Highway 20” that the Zac Brown Band sang about while going to Rome.

69. Randomly meeting Nicole Chin on the sideline of one of the NAIA’s postseason playoff games and eventually hiring her as the graphic artist and designer that made the NAIA Preview magazine look great.

70. Some of the longest car drives across the country to places normal people have never heard of.

71. Playing $2 blackjack with oil field workers in the hotel lobby of a random hotel in Minot, N.D. the night before a broadcast.

72. Having one of the largest human beings I’ve ever been around walk up to me in a bar and scare the living hell out of me saying, “So…I’m only a second team All-American?” before laughing and introducing themselves.

73. Being publicly scolded at a Hall of Fame induction by Bob Petrino Sr. because the NAIA “screwed” his 1983 team out of a postseason… . even though I never worked for the NAIA and was born in 1980.

74. Having a fan accuse you of being bias toward Saint Francis (Ind.) because “you are related to their coaches.” (Note, my name is spelled Dannelly and their name is spelled Donley)

75.  Finding a used condom in the broadcast booth of a school that will remain nameless.

76. Thinking you will have hundreds of fans show up to your pregame show broadcast only to get a few random people wandering in and out of the picture.

77. Having a dance party on I-80 outside of Chicago because traffic was at a complete stop.

78. Being disappointed every time a great NAIA coach gets passed over for a job at a higher level.

79. Being able to say I never fell from or had to get a tetanus shot from the old press box at MidAmerica Nazarene.

80. Having a hard drive full of bloopers from our broadcasts and random instant replays that were kept.

81. Deciding that after an initial 28 hour drive to California, a game broadcast and a postseason announcement broadcast that a four hour stopover in Las Vegas on the way home was a good idea.

82. Brandi Benson’s scarf.

83. Ripping the seat out of my pants while changing a tire on a trip back from San Antonio.

84. Never being able to look at a Dodge Sprinter van the same ever again.

Before you point out there are not 157 bullet points to this list know that it will be continued and added to randomly. After the initial list is published I’m sure I’ll have friends and coworkers say “hey, remember that time…”

This isn’t meant to be a “look at me list” rather it’s a list of things that I hope will allow others to pause for a moment and realize what a truly special place the NAIA is and how it has shaped so many lives as athletes, coaches and administrators.

I’ll be the first to say the NAIA is far from perfect. Hell, nothing is perfect and if anything I’m a prime example of imperfection. But what the NAIA can be is the perfect place at the perfect time for college athletics. With all the changes happening in the NCAA, the NAIA provides the niche that more teams in DII and DIII should gravitate towards.

Somewhere along the way, everyone loses their way. The NCAA is at a crossroads because the majority of their members are a lot closer to looking like NAIA members than looking like the DI members that are driving the bus.

The NAIA, now more than every, needs to clearly define, promote and build upon the void they can fill in collegiate athletics. College athletics should be about the experience of the student athlete and providing them with every opportunity to have a great experience.

That needs to be the central focus of everything the NAIA does going forward. Not chip and dip sponsorships, not telling everyone why the NAIA is great and definitely not new legislation that makes the organization look more and more like the NCAA.

The athletes in the NAIA are truly special and someday some of them will sit down and write out a long list of why their experience at whatever NAIA College they went to was great. Let’s just make sure when they do step away they can say that the NAIA experience truly helped to shape their lives.

NAIA Football National Championship Photos from Jason Dannelly – Set 4

NAIA Football National Championship Photos from Jason Dannelly – Set 3

NAIA Football National Championship Photos from Jason Dannelly – Set 2

NAIA Football National Championship Photos from Jason Dannelly – Set 1

Jason Dannelly Predicts NAIA Semifinals: Carroll/Cumberlands and Grand View/Morningside

Rivalries are what make NAIA football great. There is nothing better than going to a small college game in any part of the country and witnessing two teams that truly have beef with one another duke it out on the field. Small college rivalries are the purest form of rivalries often born out of anger or spite years ago, before the current players had even heard of the school they are playing for.

But as much as I enjoy seeing Carroll College vs. Montana Tech or USF/Saint Xavier the rivalries born out of the postseason become better than one could ever imagine. Morningside at Grand View has the makings of what could become one of the NAIA’s best postseason rivalries.

All season long, I have paid attention to the world of social media and the comment sections on NAIA.org after they post the latest coaches rankings and its pretty apparent that at least the fans of Morningside and Grand View have been paying attention to one another. Not only is Saturday’s game for the right to go to Rome, Ga. but its also for the title of “Best Small College Football Team in the State of Iowa.”

Carroll College at Cumberlands takes on the same style of rivalry feel without as much familiarity. Cumberlands has had a very good football program for a number of years now and when John Bland took over the program it got the shot in the arm it needed to become recognized nationally in the NAIA. For years, UC players and coaches have watched the Saints be one of the most dominant teams in NAIA football waiting for their chance to go toe-to-toe with the most successful NAIA team in the last ten years.

This Saturday all scores will be settled and we will walk away with the two best teams in the NAIA having their tickets punched to Rome.

Predictions
Morningside at Grand View: What’s the old saying? Defense wins championships? Morningside ranks 10th in the NAIA for total defense and 7th in scoring defense. Grand View ranks 7th in the NAIA for total defense and 3rd in scoring defense. Needless to say, these two teams have dominated their competition.

The argument I would make is that Grand View saw a greater amount of offensive talent this season than Morningside did. The Vikings have had to hold down the likes of DI-FCS Drake, St. Francis (Ind.), Saint Xavier and Saint Ambrose during the regular season. While I respect the GPAC, the offensive talent this season in the conference is not on par with what the MSFA had to offer.

There is no doubt, the Morningside offense is a force to be reckoned with. They can run the ball with the best of the NAIA and if they need to play a game of pitch and catch all day they can do that too. The real question becomes whether or not Morningside’s defensive will be able to stop Grand View. Against top competition this year, Morningside’s D has given up a lot of points. Northwestern put up 38 in the Mustangs only loss, Baker put up 28, Rocky Mountain 21, Dakota Wesleyan scored 27 and Concordia had 31. Meanwhile last week’s 24 points to Tabor College was the most the Vikings had given up all season with the next highest being 21.

All stats aside, this is the sort of NAIA football game you want to see, whether its live streaming video or in Iowa’s capital city. Des Moines is a nice sports town and I hope the football fans in the area decide to come out and see what will be a great college football game. Final Prediction: Grand View 35 Morningside 27

The City of Williamsburg, Ky. is about to be invaded by one of college football’s most storied programs and greatest group of fans. It’s one of those football events I wish I could be at just to see the interaction among players, fans and coaches.

Probably the biggest misnomer about Cumberlands is that they never pass the ball. Owners of the NAIA’s best rushing offense at 365 yards per game, the Patriots still average 100 yards per game and have thrown for 18 passing touchdowns this season. So the expectation of Carroll just putting eight in the box and stuffing the UC run isn’t quite the reality of this game.

There is no doubt about it, Cumberlands is good because they can run the football and their defense will shut you down when they need to. UC is 11th in scoring defense and 21st in total defense but those stats aren’t indicative of how hard this team has had to battle late to win football games. Reinhart, Georgetown and Lindsey Wilson all had the Patriots sweating bullets until the very end of their games during the regular season.

Carroll College has also been tested at times this year and even has an early blemish to Eastern Oregon on their record. The Saints have the NAIA’s No. 2 scoring defense and 12th best total defense. But the one team statistic that has drawn the most interest from these two coaching staffs is the Saints ability to stop the run. Carroll College only gives up 104 yards per game this season and last week only surrendered 62 rushing yards to Missouri Valley.

Offensively the Saints are fourth in the NAIA running the football and 18th in total offense per game. Essentially, if you want to see two of the best rushing offenses in the NAIA you will need to watch this game.

This game is a lot more even than I think people originally thought. While Cumberlands is undefeated, they haven’t exactly walked all over their competition this season and the Saints aren’t the steamroller they were when they won national titles year after year. But both programs are very good and this game will come down to field position and turnovers. Final Prediction: Carroll College 17 Cumberlands 13.

Would I be surprised if I went 0-2 this week on my predictions? Absolutely not. That’s how close these four teams are and how competitive the NAIA has become in recent years. One could even argue that with different matchups (Morningside vs Cumberlands and Carroll vs Grand View) that the result of those games could be very different.

When the final scores come in on Saturday, two teams will have their tickets punched to Rome and two teams will be left picking up the pieces of their shattered dreams. But in the end, fans of NAIA football can be proud that four of the best representations of what your organization stands for are playing for a shot to be the best at their level.

Jason Dannelly’s Predictions for the NAIA Quarterfinals

So I missed last week. Whoops. I had my picks in my head but never got time to sit in front of a computer and let them be known. However, anyone that knows how I bank a lot on the history of NAIA football in the postseason knows how I would have selected my games last week. It is very seldom that I ever pick against a team that is playing at home in the first round. The only times I’ve done it in the past is when a top team lost in the final week of the season to have a slight drop in the polls.

This year, I would not have picked against any one the home teams in the first round based on how the season has gone and if anyone would have asked me about a potential upset, I certainly wouldn’t have predicted Benedictine would lose to Tabor. Tabor is a great team with one of the best coaches in the NAIA getting them prepped every week.

This week is always the most unpredictable week in the NAIA postseason. There are many factors that contribute to upsets making it even more difficult to predict just exactly will happen. Travel, thanksgiving, weather and teams being over/under rated all season all come to light.

For instance, had Morningside not slipped up to Northwestern a few weeks back we would have the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the country facing off in Baldwin City, Kan. this week. But that loss dropped Morningside and what we have this week might be the best game of the postseason to date.

The “trap game” of this week is Grand View hosting Tabor. Everyone is looking at this game saying, “There’s just no way Tabor goes into Grand View and knocks off the Vikings. GV is just too good.”

Well keep in mind a lot of people said the same thing last week about Tabor against Benedictine and we all know how that worked out. Mike Gardner is just one of those coaches who you can never count his teams out of anything. They are well coached, always prepped and play extremely hard.

A match up fans of the NAIA have long awaited is Missouri Valley at Carroll College. Over the last 10 years there have been few programs in the NAIA that have been as consistent as these two. Add in the fact they also have two of the NAIA’s best coaches and it makes it even more entertaining.

Last and certainly not least is Saint Francis (Ind.) traveling south to Cumberlands. Once again, two great programs that have been around the top of the NAIA for years.

I’ll keep it brief with my predictions and give you a line on why each team wins and then predict my winner:

Tabor at Grand View: Tabor wins because they go in and out physical Grand View and win the turnover battle. Grand View wins because they keep doing what they did all year with no let down. My Prediction: Grand View.

Morningside at Baker: The team who wins this game will have fewer turnovers. It’s that simple. Both teams are going to run the ball tough and its a matter of who holds onto it. My Prediction: Morningside (and this was the toughest one to predict).

Saint Francis at Cumberlands: USF wins because they shut down the run. Cumberlands wins because they force USF into turnovers. My Prediction: Cumberlands.

Missouri Valley at Carroll College: MoVal wins if they force Carroll to turn the ball over and they score early in the game. Carroll wins if they shutdown MoVal’s offense and grind it out. My Prediction: Carroll College.

Going into the games this week, I still don’t think you can say, “Yep, this team is the favorite to win the National Championship.”

Every team has a lot of question marks and as the season wears on those get answered and exposed. Grand View is by far the most battle tested team on paper while Cumberlands has quietly gone about their business winning week after week. The amount of parity in the NAIA this year is crazy.

No. 8, No. 12, No 15 and No. 19. Those were the preseason ratings of the top four teams in the NAIA Championship Series. With no clear cut favorite in NAIA football, it only makes this weekend more exciting.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

Last weekend was one of the craziest weekends of NAIA football late in the season that I can remember. Several upsets to teams in the Top 25 did nothing but make the entire postseason picture blurrier.  From the looks of it, the team that was hurt the most was Benedictine who was in position to potentially host two NAIA postseason games to now looking like they will have to travel the entire postseason if the new rankings hold true for another week.

Cumberlands, Grand View, Carroll, Baker, Morningside, St. Francis (Ind.), Missouri Valley and Ottawa are all in position to make the postseason (as long as their schools bid the minimum required to guarantee a home game).  Every other team will go on the road in the first round, which is an incredibly tough task.

Here is a breakdown of how everything looks, conference by conference in the NAIA heading into the final week of the regular season:

CSFL: Langston beat Bacone last weekend, which basically has taken the Warriors out of the mix and inserted the Lions as the only team with a chance to make it into the postseason. With a No. 24 ranking, it will be tough for Langston to move up past No. 20 in order to make the postseason. They must win this weekend and hope the voting in the final poll goes their way.
Today’s Prediction: Possible Langston.

Frontier: Carroll College defeated Rocky Mountain in a thriller in Helena last weekend to claim the Frontier Conference crown. The Saint are guaranteed a spot in the postseason after last year’s absence. If Rocky Mountain takes care of business this weekend against MSU-Northern they will also make the postseason. However if they slip up and lose, then they are done.
Today’s Prediction: Carroll College and Rocky Mountain.

GPAC: Morningside’s loss to Northwestern last weekend hurts the Mustangs in terms of who and where they will play in the postseason. Northwestern’s win just put them into the conversation for a potential postseason qualifier. If the Red Raiders defeat Midland this weekend they should make it into the postseason given their No. 13 rating. Morningside has an interesting game this weekend against Doane College that could be a bit of a dogfight. Doane is coming off a loss to Briar Cliff University and this game will be the final one of the season for the Tigers. The Mustangs will need their “A-game” to ensure a win over the Tigers this week.
Today’s Prediction: Morningside and Northwestern.

HAAC: Missouri Valley’s dismantling of Benedictine was surprising but not shocking. I think everyone in the HAAC knew how good MVC was their win shows how far they have progressed this season from their early season loss to Ottawa. Peru State’s loss to Evangel will keep them out of the postseason making this week’s game against Baker their own personal national championship. With a No. 4 rating the Wildcats could lose and still make the postseason but need to be careful not to lose or else they will likely have to travel in the postseason. Unless something crazy happens, it looks like the HAAC should get three teams into the postseason.
Today’s Prediction: Benedictine, Baker and Mo. Valley.

Independent: Mayville State lost to Valley City State last weekend ending any shred of hope for NAIA independents for the postseason.
Today’s Prediction: No Qualifier.

KCAC: Ottawa defeated Friends given them the edge over the Falcons in the conference. Going into this weekend postseason possibilities still exist for the Braves along with Tabor College and Sterling College. Ottawa and Tabor face off this weekend with the winner making the postseason and the loser likely out of the mix. Sterling plays in a dangerous game against Kansas Wesleyan on the road. If the Warriors win, one would think they would end the season rated high enough to make the NAIA championship series.
Today’s Prediction: Ottawa and Sterling.

MSC-East:  No change from last week. The University of the Cumberlands has won the conference and are now the No. 1 team in the country. Congrats to John Bland and his staff who have worked tirelessly to get the program to where it is today. Lindsey Wilson and Georgetown College face off this weekend in a game that will determine who will make the NAIA Championship Series. Given their ratings (LWC at No. 15 and Georgetown at No. 16) there isn’t anyway to lose this game and make the postseason. The postseason starts Saturday for these two teams for what is essentially a play in game.
Today’s Prediction: U-Cumberlands and winner of LWC/GT

MSC-West: Reinhardt lost to Campbellsville dropping them out of the postseason conversation. With a No. 10 ranking this week it would appear Faulkner is the only team from this conference who will be playing in the postseason.  The Eagles need to defeat Kentucky Christian to ensure they will make the postseason.
Today’s Prediction: Faulkner.

MSFA-Mideast: USF (Ind.) is still in control of their postseason destiny as they go into the final week of the season against Marian.  USF (Ill.) defeated MSFA Crossover opponent St. Ambrose last week and with a No. 17 ranking they may have entered their name into the conversation for an at-large berth.
Today’s Prediction: Saint Francis (Ind.).

MSFA-Midwest: Grand View wins the conference and automatically makes the postseason. However, with Saint Ambrose’s loss to USF (Ill.) the Bees have seriously damaged their chances at making the postseason. SAU is now ranked No. 17 and will need to make a significant jump in the final rating to make the postseason.  Saint Xavier is rated No.21 and will need to make an even more significant jump in order to make the postseason.
Today’s Prediction: Grand View. With Saint Ambrose possible.

For those of you keeping score, my November 11th prediction for the NAIA postseason looks like this:

  • Central States Football League: None
  • Frontier Conference: Carroll College and Rocky Mountain
  • Great Plains Athletic Conference: Morningside College and Northwestern College
  • Heart of America Athletic Conference: Benedictine, Baker and Missouri Valley.
  • Independents: None
  • Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference: Sterling College and Ottawa University
  • Mid-South Conference East: Cumberlands and winner of LWC/GT
  • Mid South Conference West: Faulkner University
  • Mid States Football Association Mideast: Saint Francis (Ind.) and Saint Francis (Ill.)
  • Mid States Football Association Midwest: Grand View

So for those of you good at math, you can see above I have predicted 15 teams into the NAIA postseason because by the looks of the rankings either Langston or Saint Ambrose will be the last team left out of the postseason. If Langston gets into the Top 20, one would think Ambrose would miss out on the postseason due to their head-to-head loss with USF (Ill.). However if Langston only moves to No. 21 in the final rankings, then SAU will make the final spot.

The only real wildcard is if Peru State can upset No. 4 Baker University. Peru is tied for No. 19 and a win over Baker should vault them five or six spots next weekend. I’d also be one to say that if Peru State does pull off the upset, they would deserve to be in the postseason based on their body of work this season.

Friends at No. 19 along with No. 21 Saint Xavier just do not look to have the sort of firepower on their resume from this season that would warrant raters moving them into the final at large spot.

No. 12 Tabor, No. 14 Georgetown and No. 15 Lindsey Wilson are all in the win or go home category. You might even be able to put No. 8 Ottawa in that boat if they lose to Tabor. This season, losses to rated teams have been anywhere from a four to an eight spot drop in the rankings. While I wouldn’t suspect the coaches would drop Ottawa eight spots for losing to the No. 12 team in the country it would be a lot easier if Ottawa did not give them the chance to move them out. If Tabor loses to Ottawa, they may only drop to No. 16, which would give them a shot at the postseason but, a drop to No. 17 leaves them high and dry.

There just does not appear to be any feasible way for the loser of Georgetown and Lindsey Wilson to make the postseason. Win, or go home.

I make these predictions with the caveat that I suspect the higher rated teams will take care of business and not get upset in the final week of the season but inevitably something happens the final week of the season which completely throws everything off.  From the looks of the conference championships and automatic qualifiers in the NAIA, everyone in the top 15 should make the postseason with Langston’s final ranking determining if the top 16 will make it.

Jason Dannelly with a Look Back: The Future of the NAIA Article Circa 2009

In February of 2009, I wrote  three part article entitled “The Future of the NAIA” to help educate fans of the NAIA about some of the issues that were facing the NAIA at that time. We’re approaching what would be five years later and today I thought it would be interesting to look back at some of the things I talked about in that article and see what holds up and what was completely crazy.  The article appears below in it’s entirety.

Over the next several weeks, Jason Dannelly of College Fanz will release an investigative report on the NAIA. Depending on which conference in which area of the country a person talks too, the NAIA is either doing really strong or ready to fall to pieces. There has been no doubt that the borders of the NAIA have shrank in the last 10 to 15 years but the quality of NAIA competition has grown vastly as well as the image from an organization that held a negative perception in the 1980’s.

Dannelly will talk with presidents of NAIA schools, conference commissioners and the president of the NAIA, Jim Carr, about the future of the NAIA. Both the positive and negative aspects of the NAIA will be studied as well as possible solutions. The report will be released into three separate series.

Upsetting the Apple Cart: Life in a Midwest NAIA Conference
No matter what area of life or the world one talks about, when you do something that is out of the norm people will begin to draw conclusions based upon their own hypothesis rather than going straight to the source to get the facts. That is the case with the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

The GPAC consists of 13 private, faith-based colleges and universities in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota. The roots of the conference date back to 1969 as the Nebraska Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (NIAC) and the league retains all six of its charter members – Concordia, Dana, Doane, Hastings, Midland Lutheran and Nebraska Wesleyan. In 1992, the NIAC added Northwestern and became the Nebraska-Iowa Athletic Conference. Eight years later, Dakota Wesleyan, Dordt, Mount Marty and Sioux Falls joined the conference which became the Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) in 2000-2001. Briar Cliff entered the league in 2002-2003 and Morningside became the 13th member starting with the 2003-2004 school year.

With such a strong tradition in the same conference and the same national affiliation (NAIA) any changes or thoughts of changes within the conference are often see as reason to worry. In May of 2008, the GPAC looked as if it was the leading conference in the NAIA. Membership was strong, presidents were leading pioneers in NAIA circles and the conference was possibly as stable as any college conference, NAIA or NCAA.

But then came June.

Applications by Hastings College, Concordia and Doane College to become exploratory members of NCAA DIII rocked the super conference and its membership. Little had been spoken publicly by the schools presidents about exploring DIII and none the less schools and other institutions in the GPAC began drawing their own conclusions.

In December, Dana College notified the conference they would explore the option of joining the Midwest Collegiate Conference of Iowa as a potential new member. The schools Board of Trustees will meet Friday, February 20th to make a final recommendation as to which conference affiliation is best for the Vikings.

The University of Sioux Falls has long been rumored to be making the move to NCAA DII. In recent years those rumors have gotten louder and louder as the Cougars began construction on new athletic facilities.

“Our thought was some point in the future when our facilities are 100% completed our complex as a whole would be state of the art for even the NCAA DII level,” said President Mark Benedetto of the University of Sioux Falls.

“When we near completion of our complex we will explore NCAA DII. But the economic downturn has slowed the fundraising for our complex and I do not see the University moving toward DII until our facilities near completion.”

At first glance it appears the GPAC has a lot of schools moving in a lot of different directions. But as the issued is explored further each school with perhaps Sioux Falls as the exception, seems to agree the best long term national solution for the their school is the NAIA.

But the GPAC has not been the only Midwestern conference to wonder about where its future might be.

Different Conference; Same Situation
The GPAC has faced some of the same challenges the Dakota Athletic Conference faced in 2005. During the fall of ‘05 the DAC had multiple talks about changing affiliations to NCAA DII and even brought in two special presenters from NCAA conferences.

At the turn of the century the Dakota Athletic Conference seemed to be a small college super conference. As the South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference broke apart, the DAC-10 and GPAC were formed as a mix of the NAIA’s best in the Midwest.

But as time went by, so did several members of the DAC-10. The University of Mary joined the Northern Sun (NCAA DII) while Huron University changed ownership, changed names and essentially closed their doors due to tough financial times. The shaky times in 2005 had many believing the DAC was all but done as rumors began swirling that Minot State and Black Hills State would join DII. That would begin the chain reaction of other Dakota teams exiting the NAIA and the DAC.

Dakota State applied for membership to the GPAC hoping they would be accepted to help cut back on travel costs and also to open the door to more regional games in the eastern South Dakota area with Sioux Falls, Dakota Wesleyan, Briar Cliff and Morningside. But their membership was denied before it even got to the vote. The GPAC consists of all private schools and the addition of Dakota State would have been the first state school admitted to the conference. This after Peru State had been denied membership in the previous years.

After the NCAA talks and presentations the DAC had several thoughts and ambitions with what they could do with the conference, but at the end of the day athletic director Roger Ternes of Dickinson State summed up the biggest issue concerning the DAC in a 2005 VSN article.

“I don’t care what logo is on our wall, it still doesn’t change the fact that it’s eight hours from Dickinson, N.D to Madison S.D.”

The DAC has remained in tact with no defections since 2005 as the conference has seemed to solidify its place in the NAIA.

“I think the DAC has strengthened based upon the transition from 2005 to 2009,” said Gene Wockenfuss, Athletic Director of Dakota State. “We have some great initiatives going on right now with our DAC radio show and our first ever football jamboree.

There are just a lot of good things going for the DAC.”

South of the GPAC is the Midlands Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Heart of America Athletic Conference. The HAAC officially found out this month that William Jewell would move to NCAA DII, one year after the conference moved from NAIA DII in basketball to NAIA DI and one year after the Cardinals filed for DIII exploration.

Park University will leave the MCAC to move into the American Midwest Conference while MCAC members Bellevue University, College of Saint Mary and Peru State will seek membership into the Midwest Collegiate Conference. MCAC member York has applied to the GPAC.

The future of the MCAC is in question and several of its institutions are left to wonder what conference they might be playing in down the road. As the conference talks have continued, talks of institutions moving to the NCAA have been non-existent. Essentially all the members of the MCAC have looked into new NAIA conferences, rather than exploration into other divisions.

Exploration into NCAA Membership
NAIA traditionalists and sports fans across the country often times get the wrong idea when an institution files for an exploratory membership into the NCAA. The application to explore is seem by some as the first ticket out of the NAIA.

However the intent of the exploratory status is to do just that; explore. The NCAA requires any school seeking information on how each division works to file for an exploratory status in order to receive information on how each division’s rules could affect athletic aid, sponsored sports and department structure.

Many schools who are unveiling a 5-10 year plan often times file for exploratory status into the NCAA in order to present information from both the NAIA and NCAA to their board of regents or trustees

A school wishing to explore DIII for example must file paperwork with the NCAA, announce the exploration publicly and pay a $500 application fee to the NCAA. After that is completed a school can begin to study the division.

In the summer of 2008, seven NAIA members filed for exploratory DIII memberships (Berry College Ga., Concordia University Neb., Covenant College Ga., Doane College Neb., Hastings College Neb., Penn State-Abington and William Jewell Mo.). No NAIA schools filed to explore DII membership last year, but Ohio Dominican, Urbana Illinois-Springfield, King College, Lambuth and Cal-State East Bay had all previously filed and are moving forward with provisional memberships.

Ultimately schools in the NAIA explore membership with the NCAA to see what possibilities might lay on the other side of the fence.

The GPAC Presidents Weigh In
“We’re always in strategic thinking, trying to vision were we will be in five years,” said Dr. Phil Dudley, President of Hastings College. The Broncos, a founding member of the NIAC in 1969, were perhaps the biggest surprise of GPAC schools to file for a DIII exploration.

The same style of strategic thinking at Concordia University led the Bulldogs and their president, Rev. Dr. Brian L. Friedrich, to do the same last summer.

“It’s been a very good and helpful learning process for us,” said the Concordia President.

Doane College President Jonathan Brand and the Tiger Athletic Department filed for their third season of exploration into NCAA DIII. Brand, who came to Crete, Neb. from DIII Grinnell College (Iowa), has filed for the exploration each year of his presidency.

“I just think it would be unwise for us to preclude any options,” said Brand.

Even though the reason’s for filing for the exploration into DIII membership might vary from institution to institution the reason’s for staying in the GPAC and the NAIA all remain the same. All of the exploratory institution’s Presidents felt the GPAC and the NAIA was the best fit for them after an exploration of DIII

“We like the teams we play,” said President Brand of Doane College. “I don’t see us leaving the GPAC or the NAIA (anytime in the near future).”

The same thoughts were echoed from the Tigers rival to the north.

“Moving out of the GPAC or out of the NAIA is just not in the cards for us,” added Dr. Friedrich of Concordia. “We like the schools we play and we have some long standing historic rivalries”

“We plan on staying in the GPAC and the NAIA,” said Dr. Dudley of Hastings College. “We feel it’s a good fit for us.”

A Shaky Year Coming to a Close
The exploration of three schools into DIII, the shadow of DII and the potential of losing a founding member of the conference has shaken the small college super conference, making the job of Commissioner Corey Westra a difficult one over the last year. On top of the year to year initiatives that the GPAC drives to be a leader on in the NAIA, Westra was faced with trying to keep his membership together.

“It has had its challenges,” said Westra. “But I think as some of the dust has settled in the conference we are beginning to have a clearer picture of what is ahead for the GPAC.”

That picture should become clearer after the spring meeting as York College has applied for membership. The addition of York College could mean expansion for the conference or a replacement for Dana College if the Vikings move to the MCC. If the Vikings stay, York College could prove as a replacement for Sioux Falls when the Cougars complete their facilities and move toward exploring DII.

There is also the possibility of York College not being accepted into the conference which could mean the GPAC might have a slight reduction in conference games if Sioux Falls or Dana were to leave.

“There is a lot of tradition and a lot of great schools in the GPAC,” said Westra. “Personally I’d hate to see any of them leave.”

As the academic year winds down it would appear all but one of the NAIA’s Midwestern schools is staying put as William Jewell moves to NCAA DII. Sioux Falls may be the next school to transition as they have already indicated it is part of their strategic plan for athletics moving the question from a matter of “if” to a matter of “when”.

Part two of the three part series will be released early next week as Dannelly examines the coasts of the NAIA and members that have moved and are moving into the NCAA. Part three will be released next Thursday.

A Forgotten History
In 1957 the NAIA national office made the move from Pepperdine University to Kansas City, Mo. so the national office could better serve its institutions from a more centralized location. The next 30 years proved to be the NAIA’s most prolific time as membership soared to an all time high.

However in the last 15 years the NAIA membership has decreased significantly. Currently the NAIA has 291 members down from an all-time high of 588 members in 1973-74 but up from membership numbers in the last five years. However with the current state of several conferences in the NAIA, the NAIA membership may slip below 280.

Last summer the NCAA released their most recent list of potential new NCAA schools based upon those applying for provisional NCAA memberships and exploratory filings.

Houston Baptist is the lone former NAIA member moving into NCAA DI, a decision the Huskies made a few years ago. On their way from the NAIA to NCAA DII are Urbana University (Ohio), Ohio Dominican, King College (Tenn.), the University of Illinois-Springfield, Cal-State Eastbay, Dominican (Calif.) and Lambuth (Tenn.).

Moving to DIII are Lyndon State, Saint Vincent College, Geneva College (Penn.) and Spalding University. Berry College and Covenant College have not officially notified anyone if they will continue as DIII exploratory members but all signs are pointing towards the two schools in Georgia to move to the NCAA.

Once seen as equal to NCAA DII, the NAIA has fallen behind the other small college scholarship division in terms of membership and media profile. A recent article in the Canton Rep characterized the move of two Canton area NAIA institutions to the NCAA as “a gigantic leap forward.”

Lost Trophies
There is no doubt that when NCAA DII and DIII became more prevalent and gained more exposure that the NAIA was bound to lose some of the 588 members it had in the 70’s. Frankly put, some members were much better fits in NCAA DII or DIII than they ever would have been in the NAIA. DII and DIII allowed those schools to move more towards their niche.

The best of the original NAIA institutions have moved on in all major sports. This fall marked the 53rd annual NAIA football championship. Of the 80 trophies awarded to NAIA schools through the years at the NAIA DI and NAIA DII level only 16 still remain in NAIA schools. Five of those trophies were awarded to Carroll College since the year 2000, the University of Sioux Falls has three, Georgetown College has three, Northwestern (Iowa) has two, with Peru State (Neb.), NW Oklahoma State and Azusa Pacific (Calif.) holding the others.

The crown jewel of the NAIA is the NAIA DI men’s basketball tournament in Kansas City. It too has seen the same sort of casualties. In NAIA DI men’s basketball, 22 of 71 championship trophies remain in NAIA institutions trophy cases with six of those belonging to Oklahoma City and three belonging to Life University.

One of the first NAIA basketball tournaments held at Kemper Arena in Kansas City was in 1975. The NAIA moved the tournament to the newly opened Kemper and saw record crowds for the basketball tournament. However of the 32 teams selected to play in the 1975 tournament, only three of the 32 teams remain in the NAIA (Malone, William Jewell and Morningside.)

The remaining basketball championships in NAIA DII and DI women have seen some consistency with its teams sticking around. The DI women’s basketball has seen 17 of 29 trophies still in NAIA DI. NAIA DII men’s basketball has 15 of 18 trophies while NAIA DII women’s basketball has 11 of 18 trophies still in NAIA trophy cases.

The number of trophies exiting the NAIA in DI men’s basketball almost mirrors the initial exit of the NAIA from Kansas City to Tulsa and back.

There are many NAIA baseball trophies that are still in the NAIA, however most of them belong to Lewis-Clark State. If you remove the Warriors from the championships only eight of 37 trophies are still in the NAIA. With Lewis-Clark State in the mix the number elevates to 24 of 53 trophies still in NAIA trophy cases.

The Closing Borders
The border of the NAIA has moved inland in recent years. The eastern most schools of the NAIA have moved to NCAA DII or DIII with fewer schools in those regions coming into the NAIA. The West Coast has experienced the same problem with schools moving to the NCAA and fewer schools coming into the NAI A membership.

Many of these schools seemed to have found a better niche in the NCAA than what they originally had in the NAIA. With the expansion of scholarships or reduction to “non-scholarship” many of these schools needed a new home.

In 1981 the NAIA had several football conferences located around the oceans and on the borders of the United States. In the east there was Central Intercollegiate Conference (made up of schools in Virginia and the Carolinas) the West Virginia Intercollegiate Conference, the South Atlantic (made up of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina schools) the Northwest Intercollegiate and the Evergreen (made up of Oregon and Washington schools). None of those conferences exist in the NAIA today and only four schools from these conferences exist today as NAIA members (West Virginia Tech, Southern Oregon, Eastern Oregon and Oregon Tech, a non-football member.)

The same can be said for basketball as the conferences mentioned have left the NAIA along with many others.

The problem today is the NAIA may see the same sort of exodus it saw in the 1980’s. There are several conferences contemplating their future in the NAIA, none more public than the American Mideast Conference.

On February 24th the Presidents of the AMC with meet to discuss the future of the conference. There are seven current members who are looking at forming an all Ohio NCAA DII conference while the remaining schools in the conference are trying to figure out their futures if the Ohio schools decide to bolt.

“From what I have been told, those schools are concerned with the overall viability of the NAIA,” said Dr. Paul Hennigan, President of the AMC and of Point Park University. “There are rumors amongst our Council of Presidents that it will only be a matter of time before the NAIA is absorbed into the NCAA.”

The stability of the NAIA has been in question for the last few years as the NCAA has contemplated expanding DII, DIII and the potential of a new “DIV” although talks of a new division in the NCAA have now died down.

“They are also concerned with the geographic size of our conference and by forming an all Ohio Conference that would chance significantly,” added Hennigan.

This year the AMC will lose Ohio Dominican who have already began their transition into NCAA II. The Panthers however, are not one of the Ohio institutions pushing for an all Ohio league. ODU has expressed an interest in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Conference (GLIAC) and will likely apply for official membership into the conference this summer along with Lake Erie College, who is in their second year of a provisional NCAA membership.

At the upcoming meeting Cedarville, Mount Vernon, Malone, Walsh and Notre Dame College will be among those schools looking to leave the AMC. If those schools decide to continue to move an all Ohio NCAA conference it is likely that the University of Rio Grande and Shawnee State could join the Mid South Conference, leaving Northwestern Ohio, Wilberforce, Ursuline, Point Park, Carlow, Daemon, Houghton and Roberts Wesleyan in the AMC. The move would create a large “donut” in the middle of the conference potentially pushing the New York institutions to become independents or join the once fading Sunrise Conference. The farthest travel if the New York institutions were to join the new conference would be about 13 hours from Daemon College to the University of Maine-Fort Kent.

The Mid South Conference was once thought to be a NAIA conference that was on its way out because of the lack of full members. A majority of schools in the Mid South joined the conference primarily as a football conference and at one time the conference almost dipped below the minimum six schools to receive an automatic bid for basketball. Fast forward five years and the Mid South Conference could see their full membership number push to above ten with the addition of Virginia-Wise and possible additions of the AMC’s Rio Grande and Shawnee State.

The changing of conferences and divisions has created a ripple effect in the NAIA. Virginia-Wise joining the Mid South reduced the number of members of the Appalachian Athletic Conference for the upcoming year. Covenant also appears to be leaving the AAC for NCAA DIII and King College will be moving to NCAA DII. Montreat College is unsure of what its future in the conference might be. The school located in Montreat, N.C. is a school stuck between a rock and a hard place as they try to determine what is best for their institution overall. The school recently announced they will move away from awarding athletic scholarships and are contemplating a move to NCAA DIII. The potential moves in the conference could take the AAC from ten this last season to six in the near future.

“The intent is to make it real clear that we are first and foremost a Christ-centered, liberal arts college,” Montreat President Dr. Dan Struble said in a recent Ashville Citizen Times article. “We intend to be involved in athletics, but we hope to have a culture with our students and student-athletes alike that is similar and that is really academic in nature and is a real coherent community.”

Despite the evident changes in the AAC, Mid South Conference and other conferences, the AMC is hoping to retain its current members for at least a little while.

“We are hoping to preserve the AMC conference for a minimum of two years,” said President Hennigan. “The six presidents (in Ohio) that I have talked to privately are all committed to forming their own conference.”

Without question all talks are that conference will be a NCAA Conference. It appears the eastern contingent of the NAIA feels very strongly that the future of the NAIA is bleak.

“At this point I wonder the value of two national associations (NAIA and NCAA),” added Hennigan. “With the NAIA losing membership at the rate it has, I don?t understand the differentiation anymore, and I don’t understand the need for it. It’s probably better to find a way for all the resources to come together.”

Walsh and Malone both recently expressed their intent to officially file for NCAA DII. Charles Grimes, athletic director of Malone, weighed on the current image struggle they have in their region with the NAIA.

“Everybody seems to know the NCAA,” Grimes said in a recent Canton Rep interview. “We struggle with that a little bit. We often say, ‘This is our situation,’ and the kid says, ‘Are you a Division II school? Are you a Division III school?’ And we say, ‘We’re actually a part of the NAIA.’ And they go, ‘Oh, what?s that?’ “

NAIA President Jim Carr and Kevin Dee of the NAIA will attend the AMC meeting on the 24th to talk about that subject with the presidents of the conference. Conference commissioner Dr. Jim Houdeshell will also be at that meeting and he feels that the decision could go either way.

“I just think saying anything officially before the meeting is premature. I’ve been around these meetings for a long time and I just know that when everyone gets together that opinions and decisions may change,” said Houdeshell.

The West Coast of the NAIA has faced the same problems as the East Coast. Enrollments grew; scholarships expanded to DII levels or were cut to DIII levels and as teams left the NAIA schedules shrank and distances widened. One of the first conferences to leave for NCAA DIII was the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) in the 1970’s opening up a void in Southern California as well as the Northwest Conference in the 1990’s. The SCIAC and the NWC were the only conferences on the West Coast that most NAIA schools could compete with. The NWC does schedule games on a regular basis with NAIA schools while the SCIAC plays very few NAIA teams.

Two year’s ago seven NCAA DII schools formed the Pacific West Conference. Six of the seven schools are former NAIA members with Dixie State, a former junior college, being the only exception. The California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) has long been a NCAA DII conference and boasts one of the highest per school average enrollments with six of its 11 members over 14,000 undergraduate students. The Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) is also a DII member.

One of the biggest issues in terms of scheduling on the West Coast for DII and the NAIA comes in the sport of football, were there are a limited number of schools. The DIII schools in California hardly ever play anyone outside of their conference or offer very limited amounts of non-conference games to scholarship opponents. Current the NAIA has two independent members, Southern Oregon and Azusa Pacific who struggle to even find a complete schedule. The GNAC had played a double-round robin to complete their schedule but Western Washington’s recent elimination of a football program has all the schools the NCAA’s DII conference struggling for games much the NAIA.

The answer for the GNAC might be the addition of Canadian schools like the University of British Columbia or Simon Fraser, both of whom are in the process of potentially leaving the NAIA for NCAA DII membership.

“It looks more and more like it’s a perfect fit for where we should be,” said athletic director David Murphy of Simon Fraser in a recent USA today article. Simon Fraser’s undergraduate enrollment is over 20,000 while the University of British Columbia’s undergraduate enrollment is near 23,000 making them two of the largest in the NAIA.

Both of the NAIA’s current California conferences have lost members or have considered a complete jump to the NAIA. Athletic Directors and Presidents in the Golden State Athletic Conference have discussed the potential move in great depth and strongly considering the move to NCAA DII two years ago. But right now their is a strong commitment to keeping the conference together, and currently in the NAIA. Dominican University and Cal-State East Bay, both of the Cal Pac, have already applied for NCAA DII.

Currently, there is no answer for NAIA football on the West Coast. Several schools have contemplated adding football in recent years but none have been able to pull the trigger. At one time, there were talks of starting a West Coast Football League in the NAIA, but those talks have also come to a halt.

NAIA baseball faces the same issues in the Northwest. This season marks the first year of the West Coast Baseball League where eight NAIA members have formed a conference for direct qualification purposes. The league stretches from Canada to northern California.

The future of many of the NAIA’s conferences on the coasts appears to be dim or at least cloudy at this point. As time wears on, the NAIA and the NCAA should have a much clearer picture as to what institutions will participate in their affiliations as they begin to work together on several national issues.

Looking Back While Looking Forward
Frosty Westering, a retired football coach at NCAA DIII Pacific Lutheran, is famous for his coaching style and personality. Divisions and affiliations have never meant much to Coach Westering as he is a true believer that college athletics are a place for people to find themselves, mature and learn real life lessons from athletics. The lasting lesson from Westering, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, is that no matter where you are or what you do the main goal of life is to always “make the big time where you are.”

When Jim Carr became President of the NAIA, one of the first things he did was sit down with Myles Brand, the President of the NCAA, to make sure Brand understood the NAIA mission and the relevance of the division.

“He and I quickly learned there should be ways for the two organizations should partner.”

From that point forward the two began looking at the varying ways for the NCAA and NAIA programmatically partner as well as ways for NCAA DII and DIII schools to schedule NAIA schools without it hurting the NCAA schools in terms of schedule or postseason qualification. Once those two objectives were met, the NAIA and NCAA would look at perhaps a broader partnering of programs.

As the last two years have gone by the two affiliations have worked together on a few programmatic partnerships they are now ready to test. The first of which the NAIA membership will have an opportunity to vote on this spring.

The NCAA has agreed to create an NAIA eligibility center to work jointly with the NCAA’s current eligibility center. The partnership would allow the NAIA to take advantage of some of the synergies and investment the NCAA has already made into their eligibility verification. The initial eligibility, the amateurism and competitive experience would all go through the “NAIA Clearinghouse” which would become part of the NCAA’s current system.

No one can predict right now how that vote will turn out as there appears to be three different groups of opinions. The first is that the partnership of the NAIA with NCAA for eligibility would take the NAIA away from its trust based/self reporting philosophy. Others feel the partnership gives the NAIA instant credibility in the way the affiliation operates as well as giving the NAIA visibility to athletes that might not currently know about the NAIA. Essentially an athlete would be notified if they were NAIA eligible, NCAA eligible or both. The final group of opinions waiver between an adoption of both of the first two ideas.

“I think it would be a good thing for us because of the credibility and the visibility it will give us,” said Carr. “But I also know that anytime you enter into a new way of operating that you have to be ready to accept change and compromises and that is the part that I am usure if our membership is there yet.”

Strange Reactions
The NAIA eligibility center is just a toe in the water, so to speak. The scheduling portion of the partnership between the NAIA and NCAA is a much tougher road for the simple fact there are a lot of coaches associations who have passed stipulations in each sport which effect how teams are selected regionally and nationally for postseason competition.

There are many NAIA members that are located in large pockets of NCAA schools. Those schools will currently not schedule many games against the NAIA because a loss to an NAIA school will hurt the NCAA school when they are rated or looked at for the postseason. The current system in the NCAA offers no incentive or even neutral reaction for a DII or DIII school to play an NAIA school.

Depending on how the programmatic partnership works out for eligibility, the NAIA would move forward with more potential partnerships if this idea is received well by the membership. Scheduling with NCAA schools would be toward the top of the list.

Despite the positive talks of the NAIA moving forward and partnering with the NCAA, there have been some in the NAIA membership that have jumped to conclusions prior to knowing all of the facts.

“I think some of these discussions have had unintended consequences,” said Carr. “Talk of the NAIA and NCAA partnering in a broader way has caused some people to think they need to start making quicker decisions on their membership.”

The idea behind working on potential programs together was so that institutions trying to make decisions on affiliations would give the current partnership talks time to play out. Then, depending on what changes were made or partnerships were created, members could then make a decision on if the NAIA or NCAA would be best for their future.

“I still do not understand why people may feel the need to rush to any decisions at this point,” Carr added.

Several school administrators in the NAIA have gone on record saying “it will only be a matter of time before the NAIA is bought out by the NCAA.” But that notion is one that the NAIA and the NCAA see little benefit in.

“There is not much incentive for the NCAA to buy the NAIA,” said Carr. “If you were running a business why would you buy a company that is not driving revenue. In these economic times they are looking for ways to cut expenses at the DI level.

I think (the NCAA) is interested in figuring out a way for us to come together and work to make intercollegiate athletics more understandable to perspective student athletes. But there has been no talk of the NCAA ‘buying’ the NAIA. I just don’t think that is part of the equation.”

NAIA; The Fourth Division
There was fear a few years ago from some NAIA members and NCAA DIII members that a fourth division would be added to the NCAA. The additional division would have split DIII and potentially allowed for new members from the NAIA and DII to move into DIII or DIV if they felt it was a better fit than their current situation. However, the move the make a fourth division in the NCAA failed. Carr feels the failed fourth NCAA division allows the NAIA and NCAA to work even more closely on defining the mission of all the current collegiate divisions. The idea behind the fourth division was to provide different choices for schools based on a number of different criteria. The biggest struggle is trying to determine what the criteria would be.

“Part of my hope is we can work together to better define what the four current divisions are (DI, DII, DIII, and NAIA). If we can work closer with the NCAA, school who are trying to make a decision on membership can make that decision based on facts rather than what different people are telling them.”

There are several reasons why NAIA members have left in recent years but the majority of reasons typically come back to one of two key components; regional play and championship reimbursement.

With the economic times as they are all college’s and universities are looking to save money on travel. In some cases the move to the NCAA has opened up an opportunity for less travel due to newly formed conferences.

The biggest difference between the NAIA and NCAA comes in the area of postseason travel reimbursement. The NCAA reimburses institutions for their travel to national championships in all sports while the NAIA does not fully reimburse for travel to their championships. Trying to win a national title in the NAIA will cost institutions quite a bit of money if they are not financially prepared.

“We fundraise year round for championships in all of our sports,” said Bruce Parker, athletic director at Carroll College. “It’s something that we plan for and we hope happens. If it doesn’t we allocate that money for the next year or to other area’s in order to make us a championship program.”

Even though the cost of making it to an NAIA championship is seen as pricy at times it is still less expensive than becoming an NCAA member. If a school figures in the cost of the additional employees, increase costs of insurance, increased scholarship costs and a few other items; being an NAIA member becomes less expensive than an NCAA member even if you are paying your way to national championships with little reimbursement. When it comes to postseason reimbursements schools have to consider the NCAA operates on a 600 million dollar budget while the NAIA operates on a four million dollar budget. In reality, the 50 percent reimbursement the NAIA does offer is rather high given the budget of the national office.

Ohio (Come Back to … NAIA)

But even once the NAIA does the calculations and presents the facts to member institutions some will still decide to leave. The schools in Ohio seem to think at this point an affiliation with the NCAA will move their schools forward and bolster their image.

“For schools in the position of those six private institutions, DII can be a pretty tough place to be for schools if they want to come at the national level because DII can be dominated fairly good sized public institutions,” said Carr.

The thought coming from the NAIA’s Ohio members looking at the NCAA is they might be able to capture some of the glamour that comes with being an NCAA school which would aid them in recruiting. Being able to be recognized in the same governing body as the Ohio State University and other schools in the area would help level the playing field when it comes to recruiting.

“It’s their choice to look at something different, said Carr. “But we are certainly going to talk with them through their exploratory phase that competing in the NAIA will make more sense.”

Conclusions
At the end of the day it looks like the talks about the NAIA going away, disbanding or imploding are coming more from member institutions who are crying wolf or trying to move their own agenda forward rather than keeping the entire organization in mind. The core of the NAIA is still very solid with 291 members with most of those administrations ready to see how the NAIA will improve in the coming years, rather than jumping ship into a situation that might hurt their athletic programs because they did not wait to see what the future held.

“People want that small institution feel,” said Carr. “We offer a niche in comparison to NCAA DII at looking at athletics in a different way and fortunately there are nearly 300 schools that feel the same way. Right now we are making sure we adapt to the times and try to save everyone a little money.”

There are major issues with the NAIA losing membership in certain areas. But as the NAIA works with the NCAA to resolve scheduling conflicts between the two affiliations the ability to save money with more regional games will certainly help NAIA members in fringe areas to schedule more games that will have incentive to their NCAA opponents.

The NAIA and NCAA must work to take away the penalty or negative look that coaches associations of NCAA schools currently have when playing NAIA institutions. Most of the current DII and DIII schools were once NAIA institutions. Through financial gains, enrollment increases and good campus management many of these schools were able to expand their offerings. Their campuses grew and so did their athletic departments, so a move to the NCAA made sense. But what does not make sense is to penalize schools for wanting to play NAIA schools, especially since it is part of many of the NCAA’s schools histories.

NCAA DII is recruiting new members very aggressively and there are some members of the NAIA that are a good fit for the NCAA. The schools are moving their entire athletic program and campus forward. Schools that put the money into scholarships, staffing and facilities to compete at the DII level will/should pursue the move to the NCAA. Schools willing to only do the bare minimum or slightly above the minimum should consider making those increases at the NAIA level to become a national power and continue to grow their enrollment in order for their entire school to be better off, not just the athletic program. In essence, if you are not “all in” at becoming competitive nationally in the NCAA, the NAIA is a better home for your school.

At the end of the day, it would seem college athletic programs need to look more at what they are doing to make themselves the best in all aspects of their program. All schools are evaluating what they need to do in order to move forward. The only thing schools need to remember is they need to “make the big time where they are at” and not what they think the big time should be by comparing themselves to other schools that have different financial means, alumni support and scholarship support.