Sunday, May 20, 2001

NKU president angling for leap to Div. I

Construction of on-campus arena key to move

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Dr. James Votruba grew up in East Lansing, Mich., in the early 1950s and watched Michigan State use athletics to leverage itself into the Big Ten.

        “As important as it was athletically, it was more important academically,” said Votruba, Northern Kentucky University's president. “It was an agricultural college, a small university, but that move helped it in turn become seen as one of those major institutions.”

        Votruba envisions athletics being a similar springboard for NKU. That's why he maintains a future move to Division I might be best.

        “The visibility that athletics brings, that kind of thing is hard to calculate,” he said. “When I talk about investing in athletics, that's part of an overall strategy for the university. I think you go Division I not just with athletics but with the entire university.”

        In a 4 1/2-year span, Votruba has overseen increases of what will total $695,000 in annual funding of athletics (by the fall semester). He estimates going Division I would require an additional $2million annually.

        The school will not consider the climb if it can't first bring a proposed $43 million, on-campus arena to reality.

        Two Northern Kentucky lawmakers — Rep. Jon Draud, R- Crestview Hills, and Jim Callahan, D-Wilder — are pushing for arena funding with a bipartisan approach. Gov. Paul Patton, a Democrat, and state Senate President David Williams, a Republican, also have expressed support for the arena.

        Advocates are attempting to sell the naming rights, hoping to fetch $5 million to $6 million. They hope to have a commitment for funding in place when the Kentucky General Assembly meets beginning in January.

        “We're having encouraging discussions with a corporation right now about the naming,” Votruba said.

        But complicating the effort to land funding is the state's precarious financial situation. Budget officials announced just last week that as much as $72 million might have to be cut to balance the state's budget.

        In addition, work is continuing on a $38 million natural science building the state is paying for and building on NKU's campus. Legislators from other parts of Kentucky may not be willing to approve money for another NKU project without first sending money to their home districts.

        Meanwhile, Votruba maintains his vision.

        “I'd like to have the campus in several years positioned to make a Division I decision, and the way we get there is to continue to incrementally increase athletic funding,” Votruba said. “We'll do that if it's not at the expense of our core academic programs.”

        Patrick Crowley contributed to this story.

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