Sunday, May 20, 2001

How has NKU found success?

Sports program has become Div. II power

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Colleagues quiz Jane Meier like she's the Dear Abby of athletics: How can we make all our teams so good, so fast?

        Northern Kentucky University's athletic director simply laughs, for this record run was a generation in the making.

        “People don't realize how bad it was in the early '80s,” she said. “For years, we struggled. I called it the dark ages. I don't think the rest of campus knew how we fit.”

        Now, it's like a glove. The athletic program born in 1971 has become an NCAA Division II powerhouse, ruling one of the top conferences in the nation and competing for titles in a majority of NKU's sports.

        Its budget has benefited, doubling in the past eight years. A feasibility study is near completion for a proposed $43 million, multipurpose arena that would house the basketball and volleyball teams. A climb to Division I probably would be voted on after the arena becomes re ality.

        Meet the new Norse. They're not the cute little overachievers anymore.

        “We're the fastest-growing university (enrollment-wise) in the Commonwealth, and the athletic program has been a remarkable part of our growth,” said Dr. James Votruba, NKU president.

        NKU has won the Great Lakes Valley Conference all-sports trophy two consecutive years, after never having won the trophy previously. Five of NKU's 13 programs made NCAA Tournament play this school year, matching the school record set the previous year, and four won GLVC crowns, also matching NKU's 1999-2000 high.

        Four sports — men's basketball, women's basketball, women's soccer and volleyball — have reached the Final Four since March 1997. The women's basketball team won the 2000 national championship. And the men's golf team, winner of one of the NCAA's three regionals, will be among the favorites this week in the NCAA finals Tuesday through Friday in Allendale, Mich.

        It has led to can-you-top-this competition on campus.

        “It makes all the programs want to prove they're the best one, all for fun in bragging,” said Steve Landrum, a junior golfer from Grant County. “We saw the women win the national championship (in basketball), and that kind of inspired us to work harder and try to go to where they are.”

        It's a boom time made of modest means. The Norse had a $2 million annual athletic budget this school year and ranked ninth in the 12-team GLVC in scholarship funding, up from 12th two years prior.

        While the men's and women's basketball programs are funded at the Division II limit of 10 full scholarships, many non-revenue sports thrive with far fewer. The women's soccer team, which reached the national championship game this fall, had the equivalent of four full rides to divide among 21 players. The men's golf team had barely more than one full scholarship.

        Yet the athletic program had a $1.05 million budget just eight years ago. Women's soccer and women's golf didn't exist four years ago; soccer began with just 1 1/2 scholarships.

        An increase in the student fee will add another $215,000 annually to athletics, and Votruba approved an additional $50,000 annually for scholarship support. Meier said NKU probably will rank sixth in the GLVC in scholarship funding next year.

        “Northern still has a long way to go (in funding), but it sure has come a long way,” said men's golf coach Daryl Landrum, Steve's father.

        NKU is funded at 60 percent of the NCAA maximum for allowable scholarships in the sports it fields, Meier said. In the early 1990s, that figure was about 30 percent.

        “We didn't have great scholarship dollars to attract athletes,” women's soccer coach Bob Sheehan said. “But we can attract them with an incredible, growing university. The academic programs are outstanding.”

        Don't think that's not a draw: The athletic department's overall GPA is 2.89, an all-time high.

        For the most part, these are homegrown heroics. Seventy-five percent of NKU's athletes are Greater Cincinnatians.

        All 19 returning women's soccer players are local products. So are 10 of this year's men's basketball players. NKU's most accomplished athlete, junior basketball player Michelle Cottrell, came from Boone County High in Florence.

        Cottrell was named the Division II Bulletin national player of the year, the first NKU athlete to win a national player of the year award. “I think picking Northern was my best decision,” she said. “I went to an Elite Eight as a freshman, then last year we won the whole thing. I've made good friends. My parents come to all the games. What more could I want?”

        Tapping the local market took time. The biggest battle was against the perception that Division I athletics are a better opportunity.

        NKU sells the idea that its athletes can be the big fish in a smaller pond — and chase a championship. Some start at D-I schools, such as Landrum at Xavier, but then find NKU a better fit.

        “Half the (local) people that go away to play Division I don't play and end up quitting,” said soccer star Tricia Ruark, a first-team All-American from Seton. “The question is, where are you going to be more successful? Here, I think we're going to win a national championship.”

        It's easy to forget NKU's mediocrity less than a decade ago. Few teams were winning league titles or making the NCAAs.

        Then men's basketball lit the fuse. Just 12-14 in 1993-94, NKU stunned the GLVC by winning its first league title in '95, going 25-4. The Norse then reached the national title game the next two seasons.

        “Our success, playing before 30 million people (the estimated TV audience) two straight years, that opened up a vision of what NKU could be,” men's basketball coach Ken Shields said. “People like to play for a winner, to play for a national championship, and the reality is that there are numerous sports here where you have that chance.”

        The volleyball team has won four straight league titles. The women's tennis team hasn't lost to a GLVC team since 1997. (With a 15-0 mark this season against other Division II teams, then tennis team would have made its third straight NCAA trip if not for a mixup in which no GLVC representative participated in the tourney selection process.)

        Men's golf won its first league and NCAA regional titles. Women's soccer lost the NCAA finals to UC-San Diego 2-1 on a goal in the final 15 seconds. Baseball went 38-21, its most victories in 12 years.

        NKU had five GLVC players of the year and four All-Americans (Cottrell, Ruark, and soccer players Betsy Moore and Lauren Piening).

        The school is attracting a higher class of athletes than ever before. Along with them come their own expectations.

        “I feel from top to bottom there's an attitude that we want to be the best,” Meier said. “We're not satisfied. We only have one national championship.”

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