When the men’s track and field team at Shorter won the Peach Belt Conference championship on April 19, it marked a major first step for the university. The team has won its fair share of titles in the past few years, but this one was different. For the first time, following process that took more than three years, Shorter could call itself a champion of an NCAA conference.
Shorter is not an official NCAA member institution yet – that distinction is pending the NCAA’s final decision this summer, which several schools are awaiting. Once the current “provisional” status is removed from these schools, their teams will be allowed to compete in NCAA postseason events. But in Shorter’s case, because the track and field is a new sport in the Peach Belt Conference, the Hawks were allowed to compete for a conference championship this season. They took full advantage.
For the rest of Shorter’s teams, which are competing in the Gulf South Conference, if they are granted full membership this summer, there will be no more provisional restrictions for the institutions in the 2014-15 academic year. It has been a long process to get to this point, one that was sometimes frustrating, sometimes tedious, one that brought more work to the athletic department, but one that the school was excited about, and most of all – one that has, and will, turn out to be rewarding in many ways.
When Bill Peterson took over as the athletic director at Shorter in 2007, he did not have any specific timetable or vision of taking the university to Division II. Peterson said that the administration was “completely happy” in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), although when it came to recruiting battles against Division II schools, Peterson recognized that Shorter often struggled. For that reason, he wanted the department to operate as if it were a part of Division II.
“We wanted to be as much like [a Division II school] as we could.” Peterson said.
Shorter, a Christian school with about 3,000 undergraduate students, competed in the Southern States Conference in the NAIA. Under Peterson’s leadership, the athletic department enjoyed its most successful years in the program’s history. It finished No. 3 in the NAIA director’s cup in 2011 and improved a spot to No. 2 in 2012, its first year under NCAA consideration.
With conference realignment trickling down through many levels the college sports scene four years ago, some questions about the stability of the Southern State’s conference began to surface when some schools left. In 2011, six Arkansas schools left DII’s Gulf South Conference, leaving it needing schools within its geographical footprint that also had football and would be able to fit in with the conference’s high competition standard.
Collegiate Consulting, an Atlanta-based company in the business of advising athletic departments, thought that Shorter’s “broad success” indicated it as a good fit to fill that void left in the Gulf South Conference by the departing schools.
“We knew we had a conference interested in them in the Gulf South,” Russell Wright, the managing director at Collegiate Consulting said, “so then we started looking at their budgets and their scholarships, and they were fully funded at the NAIA maximum in all of their sports. We knew from a scholarship standpoint, they would be in good shape making the transition to Division II.”
Wright began contact with Shorter in the Fall of 2010 to see if the administration would be interested in a move. Collegiate Consulting conducted a feasibility study, telling Shorter where it stood in relation to Gulf South Conference schools. The study addressed several aspects of the state of the athletic department and other areas of campus, looking at coaching staffs, facilities, support of the university president and senior institutional staff, and more.
Shorter passed the tests, with the only major recommendation made by the study being the need for a person dedicated to compliance, which most schools in the NAIA did not have. It was a good fit for the conference in terms of geography, competition, budget and school size. The minimum number of schools to enter Division II is 10, which Shorter met. Wright said he also looks for schools going to Division II to have a dedicated athletic director, not an athletic director who is also a coach, which Peterson met. According to Wright, it is recommended to have a conference when making the switch, although not mandatory, and Shorter had a good match in the Gulf South.
After receiving the results of the feasibility study in January 2011, it was time for Peterson to meet with the university president (Harold Newman at the time) and other administration to discuss the viability of making the move to the NCAA. For administrators and coaches alike, there was a strong sentiment of it being a good idea for the university.
“It was unanimous, across, the board. Honestly there was [no hesitation].” Peterson said. “They academic folks were excited about it because they viewed NCAA schools as having a more elite status than NAIA schools.”
The decision was not just left to the administration, as Peterson said that there were many conversations within athletics about the feasibility of making this move. Despite challenges the transition period might present, coaches were behind going to Division II as well as administration.
“We hadn’t really discussed going NCAA because of what we were accomplishing in the NAIA and we were excited with it,” head women’s basketball coach Vic Mitchell said. “Once that initial contact was made by the conference, then it became like well, this could be something really exciting to look in to.”
“I’ve said from Day One that whatever is best for Shorter, I want to be a part of it and we want to be a champion of it,” head men’s basketball coach Chad Warner said.
The official decision was made at Shorter on Feb. 11, 2011, nearly four months before the application and fee of $33,000 were due on June 1.
Shorter was officially accepted into the NCAA transition process in the summer of 2011, along with its sister school Union (Tenn.). Union also joined the Gulf South Conference.
On the day the application was due, another major changed occurred on the Shorter campus, with Donald Dowless taking over as the university’s president when Newman retired. Dowless came from Division II school North Greenville, and he supported the move from the beginning.
“There was no turning back once he arrived,” Peterson said. “He felt like this was clearly the best thing for the university.”
With Shorter entering the first year of candidacy period, which started officially on Sept. 1, it was time to start making the internal changes necessary to become NCAA compliant.
As the feasibility study suggested, dedicating staff to compliance would be vital. Shorter assigned Richard Cowan, who has been at the school for 45 years, and Matt Green, who had been working as the sports information director, to handle NCAA compliance concerns. According to Green, compliance in the NAIA was a task that would come up a couple times per year, but in the NCAA, it is an all-year endeavor.
“It’s not just looking at certifying eligibility once a year,” Green said, “now it’s a philosophical shift to where we are consistently and constantly teaching rules education.”
Green said the biggest difference between NAIA and NCAA has been the need for documentation. He said has filled two filing cabinets in his office, and probably needs another one. The goal of all of the paperwork is increased organization, better communication, and ultimately to make it easier for student-athletes to succeed both on and off the playing field.
“I think it’s definitely positive” Green said of his new responsibilities. “It can be a little crazy at times, it can be a little redundant at times, but at the same time, we all know that we are all on the same page. It’s actually increased and improved the relationship we have with other offices.”
As schools go through their candidacy period, the NCAA offers the guidance and the resources for them to be successful and meet the requirements. A representative from the NCAA made an initial visit to the campus in October 2011, establishing what the university is doing correctly and what it needs to start doing in order to become an NCAA-compliant institution.
The NCAA made a second visit to campus in April 2012, meeting with departments like admission and financial aid in addition to athletics to ensure that the university as a whole is prepared to make the jump.
With changes going on behind the scenes, the first year was mostly the same for the athletes and teams. They still played an NAIA schedule. Things were about to change much more significantly, however. Shorter’s annual report and institutional self-study were due June 1, 2012, and the university was accepted into its second year of candidacy period in the summer.
It was Shorter’s second year of NCAA candidacy that was its first year as a member of the Gulf South Conference. With the GSC often called the “SEC of Division II” for its success across several sports, including 11 football national championships, the coaches knew they were in for a challenge. This was especially the case of Al Thomas’ softball team.
Shorter softball was coming off an NAIA championship 2012. Now in the Gulf South, the Hawks would be competing against Valdosta State, the 2012 Division II champion, making for two defending champions playing in the same conference. The Lady Hawks have turned into an instant success in the GSC, having won the past two regular-season championships. Being unable to play in the conference tournament, they are competing for an NCCAA national title, and will play in the championship game on May 15.
A new bar had been set. Shorter was going to have to increase its recruiting across all sports to compete at this new level, and with the NCAA label, it would be easier to get those athletes.
“[The NCAA] is a huge selling point,” baseball coach Matt Larry said. “I think you see that NCAA logo, immediately they’re going to speak to you, while in the past, you had to pull some teeth to get them to speak to you.”
And according to Larry, the typical NCAA student-athlete has proven to be more driven off the field as well.
“When we talk about bringing in that NCAA student-athlete, they’ve got good heads on their shoulders,” Larry said. “They know where they have to go, they know what route they have to take, they know what they have to do to be eligible.”
There were some growing pains for Shorter. Even though the teams were now playing an NCAA schedule, they were ineligible to compete for NCAA postseason championships until the university was fully instated. The track team’s eligibility for the 2014 Peach Belt title was the exception, because the sport was new to the conference. But for the rest of the teams, they had to go out and recruit players knowing that for the first couple of years, a chance at a conference or national title in the NCAA would not be there at the end of the season.
That would prove to be difficult at times, but the coaches were able to sell the school, the program, and the dedication to leaving a legacy behind of making the school a better place for future student-athletes.
“Truthfully, in a lot of respects it made our recruiting easier,” track coach Scott Byrd said. “Being in the NCAA for us, and in having that good fortune of doing as well as we did, we already had some name recognition in track and field, but being in the NCAA projected us elevated our ability to get a better athlete.”
Fortunately for Shorter, being a Christian institution, its teams were still able to compete in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) for those championships. Many took advantage of that opportunity, especially the track teams, which won five titles in the past two seasons.
There was a moment early on in the transition process where it really began to sink in to Peterson that what Shorter was going through was a major change, not just within the school, but externally. The football team took an away trip to North Alabama and played in front of 15,000 people. Their opponent had live lions as mascots. As Peterson looked around at the scene, he knew that what Shorter was entering was significant. The new schools Shorter would be competing against were schools that the casual fan in the area was familiar with.
As it turns out, the move to NCAA reaches far beyond the competition on the field or within the athletic department for Shorter. Bert Epting, the vice president of university advancement, says that alumni and community members are excited about the move. As part of their provisional year, Shorter was allowed to use the NCAA blue disc decal publicly, and they made sure it was on the main sign at the entrance of the university.
“For us, it’s trying to put that in all of our publications, it’s trying to mention it on the radio, to show it when we’re on the field in Gulf South Conference football games and you see that NCAA sign,” Epting said. “It’s exciting to put that out there.”
President Dowless said that there has been an increase in admissions activity for the school in recent years. While it is impossible to say whether that is definitely related to the NCAA move or not, he said the increased awareness of the school helps. According to Epting, the NCAA label is a draw for non-athlete students because it shows that the university seeks excellence in what they do.
“The NCAA application process has brought even more recognition to the institution,” Dowless said. “That’s of great interest to Rome as a community. Rome is in many ways a sports community. Rome and the surrounding areas support athletics, so the NCAA has brought more attention.”
Even with all of the increased paperwork, the challenge of recruiting and retaining students for years in which a national title is not at stake, the financial costs, and the long transition process, Peterson said that the process is worth it, and he would recommend it for another school – as long as that school is fully committed.
“I would say if you feel like you as an athletic department have the full support of the administration, every department on campus – if all of those support it and believe in it, then absolutely, it is a great decision,” Peterson said.