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Grant Wahl
November 19, 2001
In the last 10 years 30 teams have joined Division I, though most have faced years of losing and seas of red ink. Is moving up the right move?
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November 19, 2001

Welcome To The Time Big Time

In the last 10 years 30 teams have joined Division I, though most have faced years of losing and seas of red ink. Is moving up the right move?

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Year Joined Division I

School

Conference

Record 00-01

Average Home Attendance' 00-01

2001

Binghamton

America East

14-14

972

Morris Brown

None

6-23

700

UC Riverside

Big West

8-17

1,849

1999

Alabama A&M

SWAC

17-11

1,428

Albany

America East

6-22

1,148

Belmont

Atlantic Sun

13-15

648

Eton

Big South

9-20

708

High Point

Big South

8-20

1,170

Oakland

Mid-Continent

12-16

1,664

Stony Brook

America East

17-11

1,193

1998

Ark.- Pine Bluff

SWAC

2-25

1,405

Denver

Sun Belt

10-18

1,184

IUPUI

Mid-Continent

11-18

1,186

Portland St.

Big Sky

9-18

790

Quinnipiac

Northeast

6-21

1,003

In 10 years as coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, Russell Ellington traveled to 122 countries, never had a home game and (need it be said?) never lost in over 1,500 tries. If you have the time, he'll lean back, stroke his mustache and tell you stories from the road, from old Globies treks to Greece and Russia and Peru. "No other team in America travels like the Globetrotters," Ellington says with a cackle.

Maybe so, but no college team in America travels like Morris Brown, the small, historically black private school in Atlanta where Ellington, 63, now toils as athletic director. Unlike the Globetrotters, though, his Wolverines almost never win. As the newest member of Division I, Morris Brown has yet to join a conference, which forces its hoopsters to barnstorm the country, playing road games against mightier opponents for up to $40,000 a pop to keep its cash-strapped program afloat. This season's schedule would bring tears to the Washington Generals' eyes, with 22 away games against such heavyweights as Clemson, Tulsa, Ole Miss, Boston College, Southern Miss, Oregon, Iowa State, Marquette, Colorado, and Western Kentucky.

It was the same story last year, when as a provisional member of Division I the Wolverines traveled 17,000 miles, took in $287,000 and went 6-23 as sacrificial lambs, winning only four games against Division I opponents. "The worst tiling was lying to my players," says Ellington, who coached the team for four years before becoming the athletic director last February. "I'd say, 'You can beat these people!' I knew we couldn't. We were getting beat to death." Meanwhile the athletic department took its own hit, spending $3.5 million on $1.9 million in revenues.

Morris Brown is among the dozens of colleges that have jumped to Division I in recent years, lured by the siren song of increased prestige and a chunk of the 11-year, $6 billion television contract the NCAA has signed with CBS. In the last two decades the number of Division I basketball teams has skyrocketed by 24%, from 261 in 1980 to 292 in 1990 to a record 324 this season. In the last four years alone 15 schools have joined, including such powerhouses as Elon, High Point, Sacred Heart and Stony Brook. Waiting in the wings as provisional members—those whose applications to move to Division I have been accepted but are awaiting the NCAA's final seal of approval—are Birmingham Southern, Gardner Webb, Lipscomb, Savannah State and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Every Division I newbie thinks it can be the next something ("the next Valpo," as Mike Strickland, the athletic director at Belmont University in Nashville, calls his Bruins, or "the next Stanford," the goal of University of Denver chancellor Daniel Ritchie) and a handful of programs have prospered competitively since making the move, most notably College of Charleston, Division I class of '91.

Yet the vast majority soldier away in obscurity, negotiating a treacherous landscape that features chronic losing, uninterested fans, wacky conference affiliations (or even worse, none at all) and, not least, crushing financial deficits. To make the jump in basketball, most schools have to add other sports because the NCAA mandates that Division I teams compete in a total of at least 14 men's and women's sports. Most of them are in the nonrevenue category. Facilities often must be built, scholarships added and recruiting budgets introduced. Contrary to popular myth, most Division I athletic programs lose money.

"Schools get caught up in the idea that they can make money off athletics," says Jamie Pollard, president of Collegiate Financial Services, a Wisconsin firm that examines the financing of college sports. "They can generate revenue, but few actually make money. Athletic departments rarely fund themselves."

The NCAA certainly thinks too many schools are taking the plunge. By next year the Division I Management Council plans to make the leap more difficult. It will increase the waiting period for lower-division schools jumping to Division I from two years to five (and increase it from four years to seven for schools coming from outside the NCAA). Says Steve Mallonee, the NCAA director of membership services, "The concern is, are schools really prepared when they commit to going to Division I?"

The evidence says that many are not.

Former Morris Brown athletic director Gene Bright says he had no plans to jump to Division I when he fielded a call in early 1999 from Rudy Washington, the newly hired commissioner of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Since 1922 Morris Brown had competed in the small-school Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in Division II, traveling by bus to games in neighboring states. The Wolverines weren't a basketball powerhouse, but they would go on to win a respectable 17 games in 1999-2000, their last season in Division II.

Washington had big dreams for the SWAC, from staging a lucrative conference football championship to moving the league headquarters (from New Orleans to Birmingham) to expanding its 10-school membership. "The SWAC wanted a team in the Atlanta market," recalls Bright, who's now retired. " Rudy planted the seed. He came to Atlanta and invited us to join the league."

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