LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Bellarmine isn't talking publicly about the possibility of a move to Division I athletics, but it is talking about it. The university is embarking on a period of expansion, looking to grow its enrollment, diversify its student body, increase its regional footprint and modernize its use of technology, among other key goals.
Discussions of these aims have been moving forward since Dr. Susan Donovan became the university's fourth president two years ago. They are continuing through a series of Town Halls designed to get input from various campus stakeholders.
Now, the discussions have turned to athletics. Bellarmine isn’t talking specifics. But two sources close to the university's athletic programs say that the school is mulling a jump to the NCAA Division I level in all 22 of its varsity sports (men's lacrosse already competes at the D-I level).
John Spugnardi, Bellarmine's director for athletic media relations, declined to comment on the topic, but provided a university response in anticipation of questions:
"In January 2018, Bellarmine began developing a new strategic plan to shape the university's future," the statement reads. "In addition to a number of academic and administrative priorities, the plan calls for the university to review its athletics conference and divisional alignment. The goal of this review is to ensure the university is maximizing student opportunities for leadership and growth, alumni engagement, and the reach, visibility and impact of Bellarmine both regionally and nationally. This process is under way, with opportunities for continued input from the Bellarmine community."
That statement makes no commitment on the part of Bellarmine. But it certainly leans a certain way. For decades, universities have used athletic programs to engage alumni and achieve reach and visibility. And a jump in level for its varsity athletics certainly would seem in keeping with that overall approach.
Bellarmine has played Division I men's lacrosse since 2005, and currently competes in the Southern Conference.
It 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.
Four schools currently have announced plans to move to the Division I level, Merrimack College, UC San Diego, and Dixie State. The C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University will merge with Long Island University to form a single Division I athletic program. Merrimack will begin this process this season and become an active full member of Division I in 2024-25. The others a year later.
Schools may not participate in the NCAA Division I postseason until they are full members.
For Bellarmine, the most ready-made program would seem to be men’s basketball. Under coach Scott Davenport, the Knights have become a national power in Division II, and held their own against Division I competition. They lost to an NCAA Tournament-bound Louisville team by 11 to start last season.
A season before, they played host to Cincinnati in an exhibition game in Freedom Hall, with some speculation then that they might look to play more home games in the venerable old arena that was home to University of Louisville basketball until it moved into the KFC Yum! Center in 2010.
The question, of course, is one of scale. Could Bellarmine make enough money on athletics to offset the higher costs of competing in Division I? Would fans absorb higher ticket costs? Would their fan base grow with more television and other exposure, and how would they react to playing a limited number of "buy" games against power schools on the road?
At the same time, Bellarmine's programs could command more media coverage as Division I members, which would mean enhanced visibility for the school.
It's a lot to take in, and at the moment, the school is playing its athletic plans close to the vest.
There are some success stories in the jump from Division II to Division I. Programs like Gardner Webb, Florida Gulf Coast and Oakland have made a name for themselves. Others have struggled. Traditionally, it's difficult for programs who are in the shadow of a more established Division I program to get established.
But in men's basketball, at least, Bellarmine already has a loyal local following and could likely add to it. It already gets better media coverage than many lower-level Division I programs.
Money is always a major question for a school of Bellarmine's size. 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.
In the last year for which public figures are available, 2017-18, Bellarmine showed an athletic budget of $8.57 million in reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
That's roughly on a par with North Alabama, a school twice Bellarmine’s size, in its first season at the Division I level competing in the Atlantic Sun with an athletic budget of just over $9 million, after being a nationally prominent Division II program for years.
While no decisions have been made at Bellarmine, talks are proceeding internally. And a leap that has long been rumored could be a more serious reality now than it has been in the past.
In the meantime, the university as a whole is continuing a conversation on expansion, planning a capital campaign, and running a fast-break toward making a bigger name for itself.
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