WSSU gives up pursuit of Division I

By John Dell
Updated: September 12, 2009

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Winston-Salem State University has stopped its drive to Division I.

The decision to continue competing in Division II and rejoin the CIAA was made Friday afternoon by the school’s board of trustees at a specially called meeting on campus.

Chancellor Donald Reaves, who has researched the move to Division I during the last 18 months, presented a detailed resolution that the board unanimously approved.

“This has been a difficult decision,” Reaves told the board, “but it’s time to move on.”

Since leaving the CIAA and starting the transition to Division I five years ago, WSSU’s athletics department has lost more than $6 million. Reaves projected that the deficit would grow to $15 million by 2012.

Reaves said that the university’s continued financing of the athletics program was detracting from academic endeavors.

The transition started in October 2004 when Reaves’ predecessor, Harold Martin, had a vision to upgrade athletics as the student body grew.

“It is my hope that the emotions will subside, and that folks who have supported the university will continue to do so,” Reaves told the board.

In his office, Reaves told reporters that he is prepared for the backlash from alumni and fans.

“There is nothing I can do about that,” he said about the calls and letters that the school will no doubt receive. “That’s part of this process. There are some people that won’t understand, refuse to understand, and there’s not a lot I can do about that. I’ve done my best throughout this process to explain to people, and it’s been a clear message: There’s a lack of money.”

On the other hand, Reaves said, there will be some fans who will be glad to be going back to the CIAA.

“I know that there are some fans and alums out there who will be very happy with this decision,” he said.

Reaves said that this was the toughest decision he had to make in his 33-year career.

“We needed to get this behind us, and it’s been dragging on too long,” he said. “And the sad fact is we just do not have the resources to play at that level…. We simply don’t raise the amount of money to cover the expenses with running a program at the Division I level.”

Reaves met with all of WSSU’s coaches after the meeting, and then met with all the athletes.

Those athletes, many of whom believed that they were being recruited by a Division I school, will have their scholarships honored, according to Reaves.

“We will be working with each student directly impacted by this change,” Reaves said. “We will provide advice and financial support, as well as helping them decide what is in their best interest.”

WSSU sponsors 15 sports, and Reaves said that some could be eliminated. He added that any athletes affected by this decision will be helped at every turn.

“We must do whatever it takes to support these student-athletes,” he said.

Reaves said that it would be up to the new athletics director, who has yet to be hired, to determine which sports would be eliminated and how many assistant coaches in the major sports would be cut.

Kermit Blount, the head football coach for the last 17 years, did not return a phone message requesting comment.

Bobby Collins, the men’s basketball coach, said that the hardest part for him was talking to his team about the decision.

“It’s difficult,” Collins said. “Especially with the kids because emotionally there aren’t many words we can offer them.”

Leon Kerry, the commissioner of the CIAA, was ecstatic about the news that WSSU is “We welcome them back with open arms,” Kerry said by telephone. “I’m as happy as I can be. I’m glad to hear they are back in our conference, and it’s going to be a big boost for our league.”

Kerry said that if WSSU can reduce its scholarships, it would be eligible to compete for CIAA titles next fall. That would mean that both basketball teams could be eligible for the 2010-11 CIAA tournaments in Charlotte.

Commissioner Dennis Thomas of the MEAC, reached by phone yesterday, said he had yet to hear from Reaves. He was learning about the decision for the first time, and said: “I would love to talk to you about their decision, but I’d like to take it all in and think about this over the weekend.”

Reaves said that a big cost-saving move would come from reduced scholarships. The football team has about 53 scholarships. To be eligible for the CIAA championship next fall, the scholarships would have be reduced to 38.

Reaves said that the NCAA would have to approve the reclassification to the CIAA.

“We must start the process to reclassify and also provide the CIAA with a notification of interest as soon as possible,” he said.

“The decision to remain at Division II will certainly have an impact on our university, and it will not be an easy transition.”