In a historic move, Concordia University Irvine has completed a three-year journey to become a member of NCAA Division II, a change that is already enhancing academics, athletic competition and CUI’s visibility and reputation nationwide.
“Twenty years from now, I believe we will look back on this as one of the most significant decisions the institution has made,” says Gary McDaniel, CUI’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “I think we’ll show it helped transform the institution.”
The change is about much more than brand identity, athletics or earning the recognizable NCAA “blue dot” logo. Rather, it means taking a step forward athletically and academically by aligning with the standards and goals set forth by the NCAA for its Division II teams.
That mission can be summed up in one phrase, “Life in the balance.”
“When people hear NCAA, their first reaction is to think about USC, UCLA, the Final Four— Division I schools,” says Bret Taylor, a professor of mathematics who served for three years as the faculty athletics-representative and was part of the task force that investigated moving to DII. But DII is a world apart in many ways, encouraging student-athletes to perform at their highest levels in the classroom and in athletic competition.
“We liked the idea of a better balance between academics and athletics, and at the same time a higher level of competition,” says Kent Schlichtemeier, who chaired the committee and is the assistant dean of the School of Education. He served as women’s basketball coach from 1988-93.
The possibility of changing conferences came to the fore in 2012-2013 when four of CUI’s traditional rivals—Cal Baptist, Azusa Pacific, Fresno Pacific and Pt. Loma—all left the Golden State Athletics Conference (GSAC) in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and joined NCAA DII’s PacWest Conference.
“There was kind of an exodus occurring,” says Schlichtemeier. The GSAC, which used to be the most competitive athletic conference in the NAIA, was losing its competitive edge.
The result: “Domination was taking place in the conference,” says Taylor, meaning that CUI teams were excelling, but not being challenged as much as before. Not only that, the NAIA, while well-established in the Midwest, remains relatively unknown on the West Coast.
“We were winning national championships, but when you opened the OC Register you still had to open the back pages to find it.
It wasn’t leading news,” says Taylor.
Athletic success was financially costly as well. CUI teams—at CUI’s expense—were traveling across the country to national tournaments. In some cases, three of the final four teams in the tournaments were GSAC teams, meaning that the Eagles were “flying halfway across the country to play schools in our own conference,” says McDaniel. “It didn’t make sense.”
Recognizing that a moment of possible transition was upon them, President Krueger consulted with other administrators and decided to assemble a task force to study why other schools were joining the NCAA Division II—and what CUI’s future should be. The task force, made up of faculty, coaches, and administrators, began interviewing university presidents and athletics directors from schools that had made the switch.
“They were all very positive about the move and in retrospect thought it was the right thing to do,” says Schlichtemeier.
What stood out to the task force was a strong set of potential benefits—along with a daunting transformation process with potential downsides.
“Cost and compliance were the two biggest questions, and what if we find out we can’t compete?” says Taylor. “You don’t want to go to a conference and be in last place in everything.”
The PacWest conference of Division II includes teams in Hawaii, Utah and the Bay Area, meaning “travel expenses in season were projected to double,” says Schlichtemeier, “but that was still a savings compared to what we were spending to send teams to the national tournament.” One major cost advantage is that the NCAA subsidizes all post-season play.
Other costs involved hiring a compliance officer, and spending thousands of hours to create and maintain new systems to ensure
on-going compliance. NCAA rules are much stricter—and more strictly enforced—and cover everything from practice hours to length of season, grade eligibility and protocols of recruiting.
“It was going to take a lot more discipline and time by the entire athletic department to meet compliance regulations,” says Schlichtemeier.
Some coaches were concerned about the amount of paperwork and regulations governing NCAA athletic programs and student-athletes, the likes of which the campus had never seen.
Twenty years from now, I believe we will look back on this as one of the most significant decisions the institution has made.
“Of all the groups on campus that had to change the most, it was the coaches,” says Taylor. “They would have to pass a recruiting test each year to even go out recruiting. They would have to change their scheduling, their travel and more.”
- Coaches in NCAA DII must have documented permission from a student-athlete’s junior college before trying to recruit that student-athlete. Otherwise, the school is penalized.
- Coaches must submit weekly Countable Athletically Related Activities (CARA) hours to a compliance officer, who makes sure they are abiding by in- or out-of-season rules. For example, a team might be allowed to practice 20 hours a week, 4 hours per day, with one day off per week when in season. Any more, and the university would receive a violation and a penalty.
- Incoming athletes must sign a letter committing to play for a specific university for a year. If they break that commitment, they lose a year of eligibility.
- All student-athletes must have their GPA certified by the NCAA’s eligibility center and cannot practice until they do.
- The NCAA holds student-athletes to higher standards for grades, and for taking specific numbers of units
each semester toward their degrees.
“Unofficial visits, official visits, recruiting pre-approval, and so on,” says Andrea Riche, compliance officer at CUI, who served in athletics at CSU Long Beach before coming here. “There are a lot more forms to fill out and rules to follow than in the previous conference. It’s checks and balances, more organization and structure.”
Another concern was competitiveness. Would CUI be able to fund its sports teams enough to make them competitive in the PacWest? On the positive side, the task force concluded that higher academic standards and more rigorous accountability provided by the NCAA would create a more level playing field between schools.
“We were already holding our athletes to high standards but it’s nice to know that the competition is also holding their athletes to high standards,” says Schlichtemeier.
Other advantages included reconnecting with old rivals like APU and Cal Baptist, and being associated with a much higher-profile brand in the NCAA.
“There’s no need to explain to our constituents what that blue dot means,” says one task force member.
The task force also looked into moving to NCAA Division III, but two major factors worked against it: First, Division III universities in California are much more socially liberal and not aligned with CUI’s culture and mission.
Division III schools also have huge endowments and can fund financial aid for student-athletes at a much higher level than CUI.
After six months of in-depth research, the task force believed Division II and its “life in the balance” approach was the right choice.
“We felt like it was the most logical progression for our athletic programs and Concordia University Irvine as an institution,” says Schlichtemeier. “It just seemed like it was the right thing to do at that time in our history. There was always that question of, do we want to invest our time and energy to do this? It would be an awful lot of work on the part of a lot of people. But the perceived advantages and value galvanized us to take this step.”
The task force recommended moving forward, and CUI submitted an application to the NCAA in February 2014, beginning a three-year journey full of unknowns.
We felt like it was the most logical progression for our athletic programs and Concordia University Irvine as an institution.
Mo Roberson, now CUI’s athletics director, came to CUI in 2013 from Cal Baptist, which had just moved to Division II. The timing of his hiring seemed providential.
“It was one hundred percent God’s hand in the whole thing,” Roberson says. “I feel like the Lord brought me here at the right time.”
Roberson knew first-hand what the transition would look like, and had a personal connection with NCAA representatives. He and then-athletics director Dave Bireline “spent countless hours in this transition,” says Schlichtemeier.
Coaches who had been skeptical went into it with optimism.
“They handled it really, really well, even some of them that weren’t sure we should make this move,” says Taylor. “Once it was decided, they said, okay, what do I need to do? It speaks to their character and their desire for students to do well.”
Crystal Rosenthal ’02, MA ’07 Eagles softball coach for the past ten years, was excited about the possibility of playing DII.
“I was confident we could compete at that level and looked forward to the branding of the NCAA and what that would mean for us athletically and academically,” she says.
Riche describes the process as “basically an audit of the whole athletic department, financial aid, the registrar’s office—double and triple checking that we were following the processes we put in place. Making sure we were all on the same page.”
The NCAA sent representatives to campus regularly for inspections and interviews. Not only did CUI progress through each stage without a problem, the NCAA even asked to share some of the policies, methods and procedures CUI developed with other member schools for their improvement.
In July 2017, the NCAA called President Krueger and welcomed CUI into full membership in Division II.
“It’s a great move for the university,” says Cliff Pawley, CUI’s athletic training education program director and facultyathletics representative. “There’s an element of institutional prestige that goes along with being in the NCAA. It makes recruitment easier. Student-athletes gravitate to NCAA institutions and the product on the court is better.”
They are coming to Concordia to get their degree and do their best in the pool, courts and field.
He adds that the PacWest conference is a good fit because of “the number of institutions that share a similar mission.”
Stricter eligibility requirements for transfer students have given coaches greater incentive to find high-quality freshman athletes, says McDaniel. Student-athletes at CUI today have better GPAs and SAT scores than they did three years ago.
“We’re bringing in better student-athletes who are more concerned about getting to class and doing well,” says McDaniel.
Already, Taylor and others “are seeing student-athletes who come in prepared academically. They are coming to Concordia to get their degree and do their best in the pool, courts and fields. That’s enormous to me.”
As for competition, Roberson compares the new reality to “being in the playoffs all season long. There are no easy games.”
But Eagles teams are already having surprising success. Women’s volleyball won the PacWest title last year in its first year of eligibility. The year before that, men’s basketball tied for the top spot. Eagles soccer teams have been in the top three. CUI finished third overall in the PacWest Commissioners Cup, which is a cumulative measure of performance across all sports. In fact, former GSAC teams now make up the top half of the PacWest standings.
“It has gone well,” Roberson says. “A lot of people were nervous that it was going to be really hard. We’ve proven we can compete, and academically we’re getting quality individuals here.”
Taylor says that “the success in the conference validates that we deserve to be here. If we were finishing last in everything the question would arise, could we still get kids to come if we can’t compete? But over the three years we’ve managed to find the right balance of students and athletes, and absolutely we can compete. We believe we can win a conference title in any sport if we work hard enough and find the right student-athletes.”
Softball coach Rosenthal says “it certainly has created more work for coaches, but I think in the long run it’s really beneficial to our programs. The value placed on academics by DII has helped me attract better students to my program, which has made for less work once they’re here.”
Eagles softball won its first tournament in DII and has been in the top half of the conference both years.
“It’s been a great transition and I really look forward to what we’ll be able to do now that we’re eligible for post-season,” Rosenthal says.
McDaniel gives the greatest credit to the coaches. “We really appreciate our coaching staff who stood tall through all learning curves we had to get to this point,” he says.
Now, on to the future.