WSSU Going To Division I

By John Dell (BASN Wire Services)
Updated: October 16, 2007

Winston Salem State UniversityNORTH CAROLINA— Winston-Salem State is going forward with plans to move its athletics program to Division I. “This is an exciting time for Winston-Salem State ,” Chancellor Harold Martin said yesterday. “Moving up to Division I advances our university’s strategic plan and will offer our talented student-athletes even more challenging competition.”

School officials announced at a news conference yesterday that they hope to have the football team playing in Division I-AA and all other teams playing in Division I by the start of the 2009-10 school year. To meet that timetable and the required five-year transition period for the move, WSSU must apply to the NCAA for a change in classification by Dec. 1.

WSSU eventually hopes to join the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and most likely will leave the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association – a conference it has belonged to since 1946 – after the 2004-05 academic year.

WSSU officials would like for their teams to remain eligible for CIAA championships at least through the coming school year. However, once the school applies for the change in classification, the CIAA has the option of cutting ties between the two, said Leon Kerry, the CIAA commissioner.

“It’s been 59 years, and we’ve enjoyed our association with them, but business is business,” Kerry said. “If they think a change in divisions is the key, then they are going to have to spend more money. We wish them luck, and I’m proud of our association with them, so I’m heavy-hearted about this.”

Kerry said that the CIAA board of directors would determine whether WSSU will be allowed to continue competing in the conference.

“I don’t know yet,” Kerry said when asked if the basketball teams would be eligible for the CIAA Tournaments next February. “We’ll have a meeting about that, but we don’t want them to have twice as many scholarships as our other schools, so we’ll have to look into it once the letter is sent. If they send (the letter) next June, then that’s OK.”

Martin said that WSSU probably will submit its letter to the NCAA near the Dec. 1 deadline.

He also said that WSSU already has paid its CIAA dues of $30,000 for 2004-05 and that he expects the school’s teams to remain eligible for conference championships.

Philip Stitt, the men’s basketball coach, is bracing for the possibility that his team might not be allowed to play in CIAA Tournament.

“That is a worry,” he said. “That would be awful disappointing to our young people. But maybe we can use that to focus on the regular season if we can’t play in the CIAA Tournament.”

Moving to Division I means that WSSU will have to add at least 50 scholarships, at least three sports and as many as 15 coaches.

The new sports most likely will be men’s and women’s track and women’s golf, according to Athletics Director Percy Caldwell. And Caldwell says he has put together a plan that will give the school plenty of time to raise the money needed to pay for the additions.

Caldwell said he has a budget of $1.2 million this year, and Martin estimated that the athletics program will need to add at least $1.5 million a year to the budget over the next five years.

“By the end of the five-year period, we hope to be between $4 and $5 million in the budget,” Caldwell said.

Raising that kind of money will be a big step, and school officials realize, an important one. Norfolk State and Hampton left the CIAA for the MEAC in the mid-1990s. Hampton has thrived in Division I, but Norfolk State hasn’t had much success – mainly because of finances, according to Martin.

Martin said that, during the past year, he has studied the models of N.C. A&T (which left the CIAA in the 1970s), Hampton and Norfolk State and that with continued growth at WSSU (the school hopes to have more than 6,000 students by 2009), he is confident about the Rams’ ability to play at a higher level.

Bighouse Gaines, the legendary basketball coach who spent 48 years at WSSU before retiring in 1993, says that the bottom line is money.

“I’m from Kentucky where we breed horses, and you don’t send a jackass to the Kentucky Derby,” said Gaines, who also had a stretch as WSSU’s AD. “This is a five-year plan, and that means you have five years to get ready. It’s a step in the right direction, but the only thing that bothers me is the difference in money.”

Gaines says that donations will be a factor and that generating revenue will be paramount. He also called on the alumni association to become more active, which he says was a problem when he was coaching.

Football coach Kermit Blount, a former quarterback for the Rams, says that moving up should help the school in many ways.

“Most young men coming out of high school now have aspirations about playing at the Division I level,” Blount said. “A lot of them don’t play at the Division I level but play at the Division I-AA level. It’s going to have a great affect on what we are doing locally, but it will also allow us to go and get players from out of state.”