ONLY IN THE WORLD-HERALD
The campus of Oakland University in suburban Detroit has buzzed with excitement this week over the school's place in the national spectacle that is March Madness.
It started when the Golden Grizzlies won the Summit League tournament title game — which was televised live nationally — to claim the conference's automatic NCAA men's basketball tournament bid.
With the CBS network cameras on hand Sunday, a large gathering in the school's gym erupted when Oakland's name popped up on the big tournament bracket.
Hundreds of students and fans are now in Tulsa anticipating the Grizzlies' opening game Friday morning against the University of Texas — one that some pundits say it actually could win.
With UNO now hoping to jump to Division I and join Oakland in the Summit League, Maverick fans may one day have their own NCAA hoop dreams. Could they be reality? Or is the thought simply, well, madness?
Creighton University Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen, who knows a couple of things about Division I basketball, is among the believers. He said the move makes total sense.
Rasmussen also has no problem with the University of Nebraska at Omaha joining Creighton as Omaha's second mid-major basketball school.
“I would say they made the right decision, and I applaud them for doing that,'' Rasmussen said.
Still don't believe? Consider Oakland.
Oakland University, historically a commuter school, didn't even exist 60 years ago. And until 14 years ago, it was playing Division II basketball, just like the Mavericks.
The Grizzlies since have shown they can win in Division I. This year's NCAA bid is the school's third. Oakland also traveled to the University of Tennessee in December and knocked off the Volunteers, ranked No. 7 at the time.
Doubt that such schools can make it all work financially? Oakland reportedly collected some $450,000 in game guarantees last year for traveling to play teams like Tennessee, Purdue, West Virginia, Illinois and Michigan State — big money not available to Division II schools.
Trev Alberts, UNO's athletic director, is not promising a similar success story. But he said it's clear that Division I basketball presents a chance for UNO to firm up athletic department finances and give UNO students and alumni something to rally around.
“I think this is an incredible opportunity for our institution and the students on our campus,'' he said.
Next Friday, the NU Board of Regents will consider UNO campus leaders' proposal to move up to Division I in all sports while dropping football and wrestling. It's part of a plan to address long-term funding problems in the athletic department.
UNO officials say the school simply can't afford to bring football up to Division I because of the significant increase in scholarships required and the gender equity problems that would be created under the federal Title IX law that bars sex discrimination.
UNO's national championship wrestling team would be dropped to more closely align the school's athletic department with the offerings of the Summit League.
While the move to Division I for basketball is probably the least controversial part of the plan, it has been questioned by some who oppose cutting football and wrestling.
They doubt that Omaha can support two Division I basketball schools. Throw in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and there would be three in the state. They also question whether UNO could expect significant new revenues from men's basketball — a key part of Alberts' plan.
Rasmussen expressed no opinion on whether UNO should drop football or wrestling. But he said that, in hindsight, the school probably should have gone Division I in basketball a long time ago.
Schools that UNO formerly played in the Division II North Central Conference have seen some success in Division I. Northern Colorado is in the tournament this year. North Dakota State made it two years ago.
Most schools UNO's size — its enrollment tops 15,000 — already are among the nearly 350 schools that play Division I basketball.
And most of UNO's peer institutions, fellow metropolitan universities around the country, have long played Division I hoops. That includes Wichita State, Cleveland State, North Carolina-Charlotte and Arkansas-Little Rock that have won games in the NCAA tournament.
It's also not uncommon at all for a city or region to have more than one Division I basketball team.
In Cincinnati, Xavier and the University of Cincinnati are four miles apart, but both are in this year's tournament as No. 6 seeds.
The Detroit metro area is home to two Division I schools, not to mention the NBA's Detroit Pistons. In addition, the University of Michigan is 50 miles away; Michigan State, 80 miles away.
Rasmussen said two of Creighton's foes in the Missouri Valley Conference, Illinois State in Normal and Bradley in Peoria, thrive even though they are just 40 miles apart.
“It's intense, it's healthy, and it generates a lot of interest when those two play,'' Rasmussen said.
Though UNO and Creighton would be in separate leagues, Rasmussen said he expects the two to develop an annual rivalry once UNO gets its Division I footing.
Rasmussen said that even though UNO and Creighton would likely compete for some of the same fans, there is room in the city for both to succeed.
Creighton could draw 15,000 fans and UNO 8,000 and still not saturate the market, he said. And having three Division I basketball teams in the state can only increase the sport's profile and popularity, Rasmussen said.
“There are negatives for Creighton's program,'' Rasmussen said. “But I think the positives outweigh the negatives.''
Exactly what kinds of crowds UNO could draw looms as a big question. But the school has nowhere to go but up. Despite having one of the top teams in Division II, it has drawn just over 500 fans a game in recent years.
Given a history of putting thousands in the stands at the UNO Fieldhouse, the reasons for the recent apathy aren't clear. But atmosphere and parking are factors, one reason the Mavericks would start playing at the Civic Auditorium if they went to Division I.
Eventually, UNO has hopes its hockey and basketball teams will play in a new 8,000-seat arena on or near campus.
Alberts also noted that UNO has 40,000 alums living in the Omaha area. An exciting brand of Division I basketball could turn some of them into Maverick fans.
Winning would help. Given the small gap between top Division II teams and those in lower Division I, Summit League Commissioner Tom Douple doesn't think it would take long for UNO to “be completely competitive'' with the league's top teams.
Summit League teams as a whole average about 2,700 fans a game, while Oakland and Oral Roberts lead the league at over 4,000 per game.
More fans obviously would mean more ticket revenue. But that's not the only source of dollars that UNO could tap if it went Division I.
Lower Division I schools often play five or more guarantee games, collecting a paycheck of between $50,000 and $100,000 for playing a nonconference game against a major conference school. Creighton and Nebraska both sign up teams for such games.
Coincidentally, both UNO and Oakland played games at Michigan State this year. But since UNO was Division II, its game was considered an exhibition, and UNO collected a check for $15,000. Had UNO been a Division I team, the check would have been for $85,000 to $100,000, Alberts said.
“We do think game guarantees as part of our business model are going to be very important,'' Alberts said.
Division I teams also collect a share of the lucrative NCAA tournament TV money, depending on how the team's conference performs. In UNO's case, it's not likely to amount to a lot of money, but it would be more than it collects now.
Rasmussen said he has no doubt that basketball at UNO would come out ahead financially from the move. While there are new revenue opportunities, the additional expenses would be minimal. Scholarship numbers would increase from 10 to 13. Coaching and recruiting budgets would be somewhat higher.
Not all the benefits of going Division I are financial. It's hard to put a price on the value of the increased exposure that Division I schools receive, both locally and nationally.
Rasmussen said he'd like to think Creighton's basketball success over the past dozen years, including seven trips to the NCAA tournament, have contributed to the big growth in Creighton's enrollment, financial contributions and campus footprint.
“Athletics is often the front porch of the university,'' he said.
Douple noted that every Division I basketball school has its games featured on ESPN's ticker, the scores that scroll across the bottom of the screen. And for teams that can crack the NCAA tournament, there's the chance for huge national exposure.
“You are sort of thrust into the spotlight, and you want to take advantage of it,'' said Ted Montgomery, Oakland's director of public affairs. “This is huge for this university, on a lot of levels.''
UNO would be able to compete in the Summit League beginning in the fall of 2012 but would not be eligible for the NCAA tournament until 2016.
But Alberts said he doesn't think it's crazy for UNO fans to dream of someday getting invited to the Big Dance.
“We understand this is going to be a long process,'' he said. “Creighton basketball didn't become Creighton basketball overnight.''
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