Photo by Carsen Maciag/The Siskiyou
The track at Raider Stadium awaits another year of athletics. For the first time in 11 years, Southern Oregon University faces an opportunity to leave the NAIA and join Division II of the NCAA.
With no current home for the football program, Southern Oregon athletics looks toward the NCAA Division II ranks as a possible answer.
Southern Oregon was given the opportunity to become an NCAA Div. II school in the mid-to-late 1990s, but the administration decided to remain an NAIA school because of overall funding needed and access to national playoffs. They believed that the NAIA provided the best opportunity to qualify and compete at the national level on an annual basis.
Now with another opportunity to become an NCAA school, the athletic department is looking to make a push toward the switch but still faces the same challenges it did 11 years ago.
"It would take an institutional commitment philosophically and financially," said Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Dennis Francois. "We need an estimated million dollar increase in funding into our athletics program to make the good push to be a Division II school."
Raider booster support and other financial aids would help SOU successfully make the switch to an NCAA school. The Raider club raised about $300,000 last year to go toward athletics and the school, but still more would be needed.
Southern Oregon is considering joining the NCAA Great Northwest Athletic Conference, which is home to 10 Division II schools including Western Oregon, Western Washington, Seattle University and Alaska Fairbanks.
"NAIA has been a great home for Southern Oregon in all sports, but the GNAC gives us an opportunity to play more state schools on a higher collegiate level," said Francois.
The steps needed to become an NCAA school are not easy. First, applications must be submitted to the NCAA by June 1, and the school applying must be sponsored by an NCAA conference like the Great Northwest Conference. Then there is a two-year exploratory period and bench marks the university must meet. The process takes a couple of years, but the push and thought process is happening now.
Schools that are part of the NAIA are usually relatively small in size averaging about 2,000 students, where SOU has about 4,400 undergraduate students. The overall attractant toward an NAIA school for a student-athlete is the small size and close interaction between faculty and students. With the smaller enrollment this allows student-athletes to come into the program and make an immediate impact much like an NCAA Division II school.
"The move would be positive for enrollment and for the school as a whole," said women’s basketball coach Lynn Kennedy. "I am very excited about the opportunities this could give us as a basketball team and the sports program as a whole. I think we are ready to compete at a higher level and would fair just fine."
Currently SOU has about 300 student-athletes making up nine percent of the overall enrollment. If a move does happen, student enrollment could increase from marketing and exposure of being an NCAA school.
Some speculate that the move could hurt the academics of student-athletes by putting a greater emphasis on success on the field rather than in the classroom. Currently SOU athletes have close to an 80 percent retention rate, but because the NCAA holds higher standards for student-athletes compared to an NAIA school, academics might not be jeopardized by the switch.
"I believe this is the biggest decision SOU can make," said Raider Club Vice President Pete Belcastro. "We should have done this 11 years ago but put off the decision, and now we’re faced with finding a home for football and other sports, and the Great Northwest Athletic Conference would like for us to become a member of their league."