LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The move to Division I athletic status is official for Bellarmine University. Presidents from the nine Atlantic Sun Conference schools have voted unanimously to admit the Knights as a member in the 2020-21 season, and the school's leadership has approved the reclassification, according to sources close to the process.
The school, whose membership in the ASUN will begin on June 1, 2020, has called a news conference for 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to announce the move.
The step has long been a topic of speculation on the campus, located in Louisville's historic Belknap neighborhood, but became a reality as part of a larger growth plan proposed university president Susan Donovan, who became the school's fourth president in June of 2017. A series of discussions involving students, administrators and faculty and staff has been ongoing in recent months.
Reclassifying to Division I is a four-year process, during which Bellarmine's programs will not be eligible for postseason play but can win league regular-season championships. Reclassifying programs also may compete in the postseason National Invitation Tournament and the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
The move comes with a price tag -- $1.6 million for the application fee to the NCAA and an undisclosed amount to become a member of the ASUN conference.
But school officials hope it also opens up new sources of revenue -- particularly guarantees for road games against big-name Division I opponents for the men's basketball program -- and eventually, revenue sharing from NCAA Tournament appearances once Bellarmine becomes eligible for the Division I big dance.
More than that, the decision is part of a much larger strategic plan, being implemented through a collaborative process that has been brought about by school president Susan Donovan but which has included input from the campus, alumni and community.
Bellarmine is not abandoning its liberal arts mission, but looking to modernize it, while also diversifying its delivery methods and academic innovation. Part of the larger strategic plan is to "expand its geographic reach to enhance reputation and impact through enrollment pipelines, athletics, alumni engagement, and outreach."
That's where the discussion of athletics' overall place has come in.
The plan calls for Bellarmine to, "Maximize the impact of athletics and examine best conference/divisional alignment to provide student opportunities for leadership and growth, engage alumni and external participants (fans and competitors), and build visibility, enthusiasm, and connection to Bellarmine in Louisville, regionally, and nationally."
Bellarmine will become the 10th member of the Atlantic Sun, joining Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Liberty, Lipscomb, New Jersey Institute of Technology, North Alabama, North Florida and Stetson.
The league has 27 former members, who have moved on to leagues such as the Horizon (Northern Kentucky), Conference USA (Florida Atlantic, Florida International, UTSA), the American (Central Florida), and the Ohio Valley Conference (Belmont, Jacksonville State).
Bellarmine has played Division I men's lacrosse since 2005, and currently competes in the Southern Conference.
The ASUN offers championships in baseball, softball, men's and women's outdoor track & field, cross country, soccer, lacrosse, men's and women's tennis, beach volleyball, men's and women's golf, and men's and women's basketball.
Bellarmine fields teams in 22 sports and has competed in the Great Lakes Valley Conference since 1978 in most of them. The Bellarmine men's basketball team won the school's first NCAA Division II national championship in 2011 and has routinely been ranked No. 1 nationally since then. Six of the past eight seasons it has posted the highest field goal percentage of any basketball team at any level of American basketball. Head coach Scott Davenport has taken his team to the Elite Eight four times.
Bellarmine has seen former conference rivals make the jump, most recently, Northern Kentucky University, which left the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference after the 2011-12 season to begin the four-year reclassification process. It initially joined the Atlantic Sun, but left that league for the Horizon League in 2015. The Norse have twice been to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, falling this year to eventual national runner-up Texas Tech 72-57 in the opening round.
Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne (now just Purdue Fort Wayne) left the GLVC after the 2000-2001 season to move to the Division I level, and in 2007 joined the Summit League.
A private Catholic university in Louisville, Bellarmine opened in 1950. The National Center for Education Statistics lists its current enrollment as 3,757.
With an undergraduate enrollment of 2,544, Bellarmine would be one of the smallest in Division I, though its strategic plan aims to increase its enrollment by 250-300 students in the next 3-5 years. That doesn't preclude success. St. Mary's of California has seen some basketball success with an undergraduate enrollment of just under 2,800.
Equity in Athletic Disclosure Act forms submitted to the U.S. Department of Education show the school's athletic spending in 2017-18 was $8.572 million. That's right around what North Alabama, a school twice Bellarmine's size, spent in its first season in Division I, just over $9 million.
But corporate support for Bellarmine's program could be exceptional. Dr. Mark Lynn, a Louisville native and president and CEO of Dr. Mark Lynn & Associates, recently donated $500,000 for the renovation of Bellarmine's men's basketball locker room. Others could step up.
But whatever happens, Bellarmine is stepping up, and it's a historic move for the university, and the community.
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