Despite the hardships, Morris Brown's players and coaches maintain that they're better off in Division I than they were in Division II. "I don't think I can get to the League scoring 25 points a game in Division II," says Claborn. "But if I put up 25 on Ole Miss or Texas A&M, then I'll get the exposure." Says Hicks, "The losing hurts, but our dream is to get into a conference and go to the tournament. Even if we don't, we can lay down the track for the future. We want to make this a legit D-I college."
In hindsight the architect of Morris Brown's move to Division I questions whether the plan should have been adopted. He recalls how Rudy Washington also tried to lure Morris Brown's rival, Clark Atlanta, to Division I, but Richard Cosby, then the athletic director at Clark, refused, saying the price tag was too high. "In this situation Richard had the sense to say no," Bright says. "And here I was saying we had a chance to make this work."
Sitting in Bright's former office, Ellington insists Morris Brown can make it work, though he realizes he's running out of options. The Big South conference is supposed to get back to him this month about possible expansion, he says, and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference said it would let Morris Brown know by next spring. When asked by SI, however, the commissioners of both leagues say they have no plans to add members.
What then for Morris Brown? "We need one of those rich philanthropists who loves to give money," Ellington concludes, only half joking. "Give us a $300 million endowment, and we'll just use the interest."
Is there a correct way to move to Division 1? Or more precisely, how did the College of Charleston make a seamless transition from the NAIA to Division I in 1991? The Cougars reached the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid in their third year of play, and their winning percentage during the 1990s (.847) was one of the highest in Division I.
Charleston coach John Kresse never thought it would go so smoothly. Before the start of the 1989-90 season, the Cougars' first provisional Division I year, Kresse met with school president Harry M. Lightsey Jr. to discuss his manifold fears. "I was scared," says Kresse, now 57 "I knew going to Division I was going to be something like purgatory—near hell—and I was worried I wouldn't have a job for too long. The president ended up giving me tenure in the P.E. department. That way, at least, I would have a job teaching P.E. if I got fired as the coach."
Stability—Kresse's, the school's and the community's—was ultimately the key to Charleston's rise. A former assistant to Lou Carnesecca with St. John's and the New Jersey Nets, Kresse had turned the Cougars into an NAIA powerhouse after taking over in 1979-Unlike most coaches, though, he had no aspirations of moving up the ladder to a bigger school. "I have seen the lights of Broadway," Kresse says, and Charleston suits him fine. "I am not a coach who is looking to play musical chairs. To be able to tell players you will be here is important."
That wasn't all. Because of its NAIA success, its sizable student body (11,620) and its location in South Carolina's largest city, Charleston was courted by several conferences, which allowed it to bypass the usual scheduling hassles for new Division I schools. During its two provisional seasons the Cougars played what amounted to a Big South conference schedule, cutting down on travel costs and boosting the number of home games. As a result Charleston could build on the loyal fan base Kresse had established during the school's NAIA days. Having traded up from the Trans America conference to the Southern in 1998, the Cougars routinely play to packed houses in the 3,500-seat, appropriately named John Kresse Arena, and plans are under way for a 6,000-seat facility. (Even with all its success, the athletic department still runs a deficit, though it's minimal.)
Yet Charleston's Division I fairy tale remains an anomaly, the result of felicitous circumstances that rarely occur at other schools. "I get calls all the time from schools asking what we did right," says Jerry Baker, Charleston's athletic director. "Certainly we did some things that were critical to our success, but we were successful long before we thought we'd be."
Or as Kresse advises the Morris Browns of the world, "Get used to the hills and the mountains. There are going to be plenty to climb, but hopefully you'll be one of the fortunate few who like us have done it almost overnight."