Considering a Move to Division II

The year was 2009, America was in the midst of a great recession, and close to 80 students sat in a gym stunned. They had just heard from Athletic Director Ken Ralph that some of their sports programs were going to be discontinued. The sports in question were football, softball, and women’s water polo. In a matter of minutes, the Colorao College athletic department had lost 15 percent of its sports teams. Talk to Associate Athletic Director Greg Capell eight years later and the emotion in his voice is clear, “I can tell you it was one of the worst days of my life. I hope we never ever have to do that again.”

Seven weeks prior, the president of the school at the time, Dick Celeste, had come to Ralph with a near impossible proposition: to cut $760,000 from the athletic department before the new budgets were submitted. Due to the recession, in 2009 alone the college’s endowment dropped by 18 percent, according to the year-over-year change in CC endowment value on the CC website. The rollback on athletic programs was especially tough as former president Celeste was a jock at heart. As Ralph recounted, “one day at the hockey banquet he was dressed in a suit and tie and he ripped his shirt clean off his body, buttons popping everywhere, to reveal a hockey jersey underneath”. But due to the recession, the school had to cut back somewhere and CC did not want to compromise its academic programs. As Ralph said, “It’s the worst correct decision I’ve ever been a part of.”

“The worst correct decision” sounds like an oxymoron, but Ralph was right. After football was discontinued, many alums were angry and there was a common sentiment that fundraising would plummet, applications would drop, and so would diversity.

In fact, the opposite has been the case. Not only did the athletic program show resiliency, it actually thrived even more after the cuts were made. “In the three years before we discontinued football, softball, and water polo, we won exactly one conference championship. In the three years immediately afterwards, we won 16 conference championships,” Ralph proudly stated. This was just the beginning of the athletic program’s resurgence.

Current president Jill Tiefenthaler inherited athletic facilities so decrepit that on her first day as president, Ralph remembered Tiefenthaler telling him, “I’ve never seen anything this bad. You’ve got my approval [to finish raising money for the current El Pomar sports facility].” And sure enough, the fundraising poured in. Many alums respected and supported the fact that the school made the tough decision to prioritize academics over its athletics program and thus the $27 million El Pomar Sports Center was born.

Today, our athletics program is certainly thriving. Around 800 people use the El Pomar facility daily. Approximately 1700 students participate in the CC intramural program, close to 77 percent of the student body. And this year, the athletic department finally surpassed their diversity goal, successfully recruiting 32 students of color (out of around 90 students) for varsity athletics. Since a low point of $415,082 in 2009, the budget for Division III sports has increased to $719,137.40 in the 2014-2015 season.

However, many problems persist.

To start, although the budget has generously increased, many coaches still find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to fundraise to keep their programs afloat. While this problem is not exclusive to CC as almost all sports programs have to fundraise, CC is unique in the fact that it is the only Division III conference in the Mountain Standard Time Zone. As Tiefenthaler said, “Being the only Division III school in the MST is a challenge, particularly in finding schools to play and funding away games, which usually means a flight.”

“I wish we were a Division II team. It would be nice to not have to travel to Texas every other weekend to play games,” said John Hatch, a member of the men’s basketball team.

This constant travel creates a variety of financial stresses. For example, men’s lacrosse receives an annual budget close to $60,000, yet their costs of operation (much of which are attributed to flying and housing all 40 members on the active roster throughout the country) are close to $200,000. The lacrosse team has set up an endowment that is in the vicinity of $800,000 which provides close to $40,000 a year in additional budget. Still, Head Coach Sean Woods needs to raise close to $100,000 to keep the team afloat each year. Other teams with endowments include the men’s soccer team, women’s lacrosse, a joint endowment for both swim and dive teams, the track team, as well as a gender equity endowment that provides women’s teams with specific funding in line with title nine. It must be noted that both lacrosse teams are in a special situation as they are not part of the SCAC, instead scheduling their games independently. Still, the cost to fly across the country, and the guarantees made to other teams so that CC can host games at home, requires this high level of fundraising. And according to Ralph, “I don’t know any other Division III schools that are that reliant on external funding,” said Ralph.

Men’s basketball, which receives little donations and has no endowment, has learned how to squeak by. In his 10 years here, Head Coach Andy Partee has become an expert in figuring out how to squeeze the budget to allow for the most travel possible. “I’m also like a travel agent every year. In August I’m looking for the cheapest fares three months in advance.”

The travel demands of being the only Division III school in the MST seem fiscally strenuous and environmentally irresponsible, especially within a college that prides itself on its sustainability efforts. Add in the fact that the largest Division II league, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) is based in Colorado Springs, and you have quite the conundrum. Of the 15 schools in the conference, 10 of them reside in Colorado. In comparison, the closest school in the SCAC is Austin College which is 703 miles away. A roundtrip flight for the basketball team from Colorado Springs to Austin College via the Dallas airport approximately yields carbon emissions of 6.2 metric tons (according to co2.myclimate.org). According to the same website, the maximum amount an individual should emit per year in order to “halt climate change” is 2.0 metric tons.

Besides the geographic benefits, Division II athletics also allows for scholarships for student athletes. Although the scholarships are merit-based and could potentially cut into the funds the school designates for need-based student scholarships, they are hardly ever full-ride scholarships. According to the NCAA website, “Division II relies on a partial-scholarship model to administer athletics-based financial aid. Very few of the 110,000 student-athletes competing in Division II will receive a full athletics grant that covers all of their expenses, but most of them will receive some athletics-based financial aid to help them through school.”

One way to make sure that the merit-based scholarships would not impede on the school’s financial aid efforts would be to endow each student scholarship per team through fundraising. That way the school would not have to divert any of its current financial aid resources towards the athletics program. Similar to the way current teams have endowments, the athletics program could focus its fundraising efforts on endowing student scholarships as a way to ensure scholarship funding even in economic uncertainty.

If CC joined the RMAC and endowed student scholarships, the annual operational costs would theoretically be cheaper because instead of flying and staying at hotels for each away game, the teams would drive throughout the southwest, often playing teams that are close enough to allow student athletes to sleep in their own beds that same night. This decrease in operational spending combined with the scholarship endowments could potentially avoid cutting teams in times of economic uncertainty, although it is hard to make definitive statements about future situations.

Most college administrations have a policy that they will pull five percent of what they have in their endowment to provide for operational expenses, in this case being the theoretical scholarships for Division II athletes. This policy is centered around the idea of providing the same scholarship value in the future as one does in the present, accounting for inflation and economic uncertainty. For example, you need $1 million in your endowment to provide a $50,000 scholarship for an individual student.

In sports like basketball and lacrosse, CC teams are already very competitive when they have faced Division II competition. This year the men’s basketball team played two teams in the RMAC — Regis and UCCS. Talking to Coach Partee, both were close contests. “[Against] Regis we squandered a 10-point lead in the first half and [we were] only up by one at the half. And then [we] let the game get away down the stretch, [but] it was a close game. There were two injuries in the UCCS game and we were still only down six halfway through the second half.”

Riley Hoffman, a junior lacrosse defender, said the team faces Division II opponents “once or twice a year” and “we haven’t [lost] while I’ve been here.” Take a look at other CC sports teams’ success in Division III since 2009 and one will see that CC has been dominant. Men’s cross country has won the conference four times. Men’s lacrosse won four times before they left the conference after the 2014 season. Women’s volleyball has won the conference four times. And women’s cross country has won the past three conference championships in a row.

The largest roadblock to joining the RMAC is the cost to endow these student scholarships. It would require an enormous fundraising effort the likes of which are rare in CC athletic program history. However, when looking closer at how Division II sports scholarships work, the athletic department would not have to raise as much money as one may think. In Division II only a certain portion of the team may be on scholarship. For example, men’s basketball can only have up to 10 players on scholarship and men’s soccer only nine. The fact that some teams have already shown their competitive mettle in Division II games makes it less likely that they would have to take advantage of all of the scholarship spots available. Additionally, recent donations such as the $8 million donation towards the Edward J. Robson Arena, a new hockey arena replacing Honnen Ice Arena, and the record donations the program received to build the El Pomar sports center, support the idea that it is not a pipe dream.

Moving to Division II has been brought up before. President Tiefenthaler remembers that when she first became president it was a big issue because the SCAC had run into problems in 2011. The options were either to form a new version of the SCAC or join Division II and, according to Tiefenthaler, “the RMAC was interested in us, I think.” All of CC’s peer schools, i.e. other top liberal arts colleges, are either Division I or Division III. Besides Colorado School of Mines, none of the other schools in the RMAC are as academically rigorous. Although there may be cultural differences between CC and the other schools in the RMAC, Tiefenthaler acknowledges that regional rivalries would thrive if CC were to join the RMAC and Ken Ralph believes that the diversity would only add more benefits.

Zach Zuckerman

Zach Zuckerman

Zach Zuckerman is an English major on the film track and a Journalism minor. His journalism career began when he covered the Mets during the 2015 World Series as an independent study. An avid listener of podcasts, Zuckerman launched the radio journalism section of the Catalyst in the spring of 2016.

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