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DWU officials, coaches not in favor of NAIA merger

The 32 women's basketball teams that qualified for the NAIA Division II National Tournament gather onto the court to spell out "NAIA" for a group picture on the first day of the tournament back in March at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 3
The Tigers huddle up prior to a game against Governors State in the first round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament back in March at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 3
The DWU men are introduced prior to a game against College of Idaho in the second round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament back in March at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 3

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the possibility of the NAIA merging Division I and Division II basketball into one division. The second installment can be read here.

The future of NAIA basketball will be at the forefront of this year's NAIA Convention.

The convention, which started Friday and continues through Tuesday in Kansas City, Missouri, will be highlighted by a Council of Presidents (COP) vote on the NAIA possibly merging its two basketball divisions into one.

The decision will come down to a majority vote of the 23 members on the Council of Presidents. Opinions are mixed on the impending merger, which by all accounts is going to happen and will go into effect in 2020-21. Basketball is the only sport in NAIA that has two divisions.

Dakota Wesleyan University, which has had a wealth of success in NAIA Division II basketball, is against the merger and is content in its current division.

"We are not in favor of it," Dakota Wesleyan Athletic Director Jon Hart said. "We love our two divisions. We love the Division II tournament. We feel like that's kind of been the crown jewel of our NAIA affiliation and it's just disheartening that we are taking a look at going away from this."

The COP will be the determining vote in the merger, as opposed to each NAIA institution receiving a vote on the matter.

"They are bypassing a membership vote and I feel like if they went to a membership vote of the NAIA schools, I think there would be a strong majority not in favor of this," Hart said.

DWU President Amy Novak sits on the Council of Presidents, which consists of presidents representing conferences across the NAIA. Novak is the GPAC's Council of Presidents representative.

"There is some controversy around that right now, whether this should be a vote of the whole membership or not," Novak said. "But it will be a vote of the Council of Presidents. That's a bylaw issue. That's why the Council of Presidents is voting on it. I am taking the GPAC essentially as one vote."

Novak said her vote will depend on deliberations and also on the scholarship model. NAIA Division I basketball teams can currently offer 11 scholarships, while Division II has six scholarships. The current proposal for the merger would give programs eight scholarships to work with.

"Our GPAC presidents would prefer to stay in the Division II model that we now have," Novak said. "However, if some of the conditions around that model change, or if we are unable to keep some of those other conferences, then our group has said we reluctantly would go to one division and eight scholarships."

From DWU's perspective, Novak is not in favor of the merger.

"Personally, I feel like Division II is an outstanding fit for Dakota Wesleyan University and our student-athletes," Novak said. "In particular in basketball, I think it has allowed for a really healthy level of competition and great student-athlete experiences at the national tournament."

From a national perspective, Novak understands the argument for one division. The talks have gained steam in recent years, but ramped up when two conferences—Frontier Conference and Mid-South Conference—threatened to transition to NAIA Division II. The NAIA Division I total number of members had also been dwindling in recent years. If those conferences left, there would have been 79 members in NAIA Division I basketball.

"It essentially has reduced the number of teams in Division I to a point where having a full blown 32-team national tournament site is becoming less and less competitive or realistic," Novak said. "I don't want to see us lose teams out of the NAIA. So I understand why this conversation has been precipitated."

Hart said making the jump to eight scholarships would be tough for Dakota Wesleyan, which is a private school with an enrollment of just over 900 students.

"Acquiring the funds for making that jump will be pretty difficult," Hart said. "Hopefully over time maybe we will be able to get there, but it's going to take a while. It's going to take a while for us to make that adjustment."

Novak said for the Tigers to continue having success in basketball, they would have to pump up their resources for scholarships. DWU's scholarships are raised through private donations and it would be competing against public universities with enrollments in the 10,000-15,000 range.

"If we do come to a comprise and people vote in favor of this, and that decision is that we are going to now allow eight scholarships per team, obviously that's going to cost the university more," Novak said. "So we are going to have to seek support to be able to offer scholarships at that level if that's what we so choose to do."

The NAIA began playing men's basketball in 1937, while the women started in 1981. There was only one division of NAIA basketball until it was split into two in the 1991-92 season.

The Tiger basketball teams have enjoyed recent success in NAIA Division II. The DWU men have qualified for the national tournament every season since 2014-15—the season it finished as national runner-up. The Tiger women have gone to three straight national tournaments and won the NAIA national championship in March.

DWU women's basketball coach Jason Christensen and men's basketball coach Matt Wilber said they wouldn't change their approaches in scheduling or recruiting. They'll still schedule aggressively as both currently play NAIA Division I teams during the regular season, while hanging their recruiting hat on targeting local athletes and four-year players.

Christensen is satisfied with the two divisions.

"I am against it," Christensen said. "I am not for it all just for the fact that I think we have a good thing going."

Wilber agreed and feels the current model is working for NAIA Division II.

"The toughest part of it I think for all of us, is this in the best interest of our universities and our student-athletes?" Wilber said. "Obviously, the Division II side has the appearance of being really strong. You look at both the men's and women's tournaments and the universities and the schools, it's just a really competitive, strong division."