Birmingham-Southern makes jump to Division I
By CARY ESTES
Now is the time for Birmingham-Southern College to prove that its athletic program is good enough to be in NCAA Division I.
And to prove that it is not as bad as NCAA Division I.
On Sept. 1, Birmingham-Southern will end a four-year transitional period that has taken it from the no-publicity world of the NAIA to the spotlight of NCAA Division I.
In theory, at least, BSC is now on the same stage as Ohio State and Syracuse and Florida. They are part of a 327-member club that plays some of the best amateur athletics in the world
"It's a whole different game in Division I," longtime BSC soccer coach Preston Goldfarb said. "It's a different level of play, a different athlete. They're bigger and stronger and faster. And there's so many of them. They can run them in left and right. We don't have that luxury here yet.
"But ours, you can run in and out academically. We can do that."
And there lies the challenge for Birmingham-Southern. A challenge that is perhaps as great as the task facing it on the courts and playing fields.
The school is entering the big-time at a moment when some people wonder whether top-level college athletics have become too big. They are concerned that the rapid increase of television money in recent years has overwhelmed the student part of student-athletes.
"It's a whole different game in Division I," said BSC soccer coach Goldfarb.
So the main question facing Birmingham-Southern might not be whether it can succeed on the Division I playing fields. It might be whether it can keep from failing off them.
"It's a legitimate concern," BSC President Neal Berte said. "The key is to maintain the academic program. We have to achieve that balance.
"So far, we have not seen anything about this move that is not a plus for us. We hope that's going to continue. With the quality of our coaches, the leadership of (Athletic Director) Joe Dean and the commitment from the board of trustees, I don't anticipate that changing. I really don't."
Birmingham-Southern is a private liberal arts college with an enrollment of only 1,400, making it the fourth-smallest school in Division I. Academics always has been the driving force behind the university. To the people within the college, the thought of having tutors do schoolwork for athletes in order to keep them eligible or allowing boosters to pay players seems ludicrous at such a place.
So instead of the money and power of Division I corrupting the university, school officials hope the university can help improve the image of Division I.
"I think we can be a beacon of what college athletics are supposed to be about," BSC head basketball coach Duane Reboul said. "There are several institutions — the Stanfords and the Vanderbilts — who fall into that role. I think Birmingham-Southern can be that beacon for the smaller universities. Colleges who are not going to be compromised in academics and social behavior, and who still strive to be successful on the courts."
Some of the athletics success already has occurred. During the school's transitional period, BSC defeated several established Division I schools in a variety of sports, including Connecticut (baseball and softball), East Carolina (men's basketball), Georgia (baseball), Memphis (volleyball), Mississippi State (baseball), Pittsburgh (men's soccer), Texas A&M (men's basketball) and Vanderbilt (baseball).
"We couldn't beat those schools day in and day out. We couldn't compete at that level day in and day out," said Dean, who was hired as BSC's athletics director in 1999 to oversee the move to Division I. "But on a given day, little 'ol Birmingham Southern can rise up and shock the world, if you will. That's exciting for our kids, exciting for our institution, and it just brings a lot of positive feedback to our school."
That feedback is one of the main reasons why Birmingham-Southern decided to make this move. Despite some of the negative publicity associated with Division I athletics, having sports teams still is one of the best ways for a university to achieve national name recognition. For example, the success of Gonzaga in the NCAA men's basketball tournament in recent years has created tremendous exposure for the Jesuit college located in Spokane, Wash.
"We've already seen name-recognition in other parts of the country and recruitment interest, not only as it relates to those athletes," Berte said. "People are learning more about Birmingham-Southern, what kind of school we are."
For years, BSC was the kind of school where athletics did not matter much. The college was part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which had nothing in common with the NCAA except for a couple of letters. Goldfarb said when he arrived at the school 20 years ago, he had to recruit students from the dorms in order to have enough players to field a soccer team.
"We didn't have a field, any equipment. We had nothing," Goldfarb said. "Now where we are is state-of-the-art in fields and equipment and offices and support. That's the most important thing. We've had great support from the administration and everyone around us.
"I loved the NAIA. But NCAA Division I certainly is better. It's better for us, it's better for our kids. It certainly improves your recruiting. It provides more publicity for the school. It really was a no-brainer to do this. In the long run, it's going to prove its worth ten-fold. It's going to be so good."
Basketball is the only sport in which BSC is not a full-fledged Division I member yet. The program must wait two more years before reaching postseason eligibility.
The most difficult part of this transition, according to several BSC officials, has been the inability of the school's athletics teams to be in any type of postseason play the past two seasons. Birmingham-Southern left the NAIA after the 2000-01 season, then had to spend two years as a provisional NCAA member before becoming eligible for the postseason.
That changes this season, with the exception of men's basketball, which still must wait two more years before reaching postseason eligibility.
"The biggest thing I'm excited about is when I go to the games now and see our student-athletes competing, I know that every game is going to mean even more for them," said Leslie Claybrook, BSC's senior women's administrator. "Now they have a chance to play at the NCAA level and compete in the postseason. That's so important for them."
"You can only dangle a carrot in front of their face for so long," he said. "When the final game came the last two years, they knew it was over. We had nowhere to go. Now they can play in the (conference) tournament and have a chance to do something.
"All we wanted was a chance. Now we have it. Because of that chance, it gives us a new outlook, a new enthusiasm. It's the anticipation of seeing whether we can stack up."
Without slacking up academically.
"We're very aware that we have student-athletes and not just athletes," said Ann Dielen, who has been a tennis coach at BSC for 25 years. "Our main goal should not be just to win, but to influence these young people and get them into med school and dental school and law school.
"We've always wanted them to have an overall college experience. I see no reason to change that."
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