Alabama State Pushing to be First HBCU in NCAA Division I-A
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama State University Board of Trustees here has decided to push forward efforts to become the first historically Black institution to move to Division I-A football despite concern and skepticism among some university officials.The board voted last month to make the switch from Division I-AA, and then immediately filed a declaration of intent with the National Collegiate Athletics Association. A letter was sent May 15 to NCAA President Cedric Dempsey stating the university’s intent to initiate the process. Retiring university president Dr. William Harris said in a written statement, “This step by Alabama State University is a significant and historic one, which will be a test for all parties involved.”The proposal, developed by the trustees’ athletic committee, calls for the construction of a 40,000-seat state-of-the-art football stadium and field house, and the development of the National Black Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. The price tag — $92 million — calls for $60 million for the stadium complex, $15 million for the museum and $17 million for operating reserve funds.But what most dissenters are really concerned about are the funds needed to maintain Division I-A status.The trustees voted 8-2 to make the move. Board members Joe Reed and Lanny Vines cast the opposing votes. Both have been longtime opponents of the move to the larger division. They expressed concerns about the university’s financial obligation to the project and the school’s ability to fulfill the NCAA’s minimum requirement of selling at least 17,000 tickets to home games.In 1998, regular home-game attendance averaged 11,500. But the average goes up to 20,000 if the football classics in which Alabama State is considered the home team are included. In 1999, the average attendance for the five regular home games was 13,428. When the classics were figured in, the average jumped to 18,886. “ASU will have some economic risk, and I think it’s substantial,” Vines says. “Without ticket sales, I would say ASU is in a heap of financial trouble.”Vines unsuccessfully tried to amend the motion with a provision that the move to Division I-A would have no economic impact on the university’s general operating budget. The board did agree that Division I-A contracts must have its approval.Reed has said publicly that the school shouldn’t make the move because it’s hardly competitive for Division I-AA. The Hornets were 2-9 last season. Former football coach Ron Dickerson was fired late last year for telling school officials that Alabama State isn’t ready to move up to Division I-A. Dickerson has been replaced with L.C. Cole, but officials continue to search for a replacement for athletic director Curtis Williams, who resigned Jan. 31.Donald Watkins, who chaired the board’s athletic committee, says the university will finance the project through the sale of naming rights on the football stadium complex and museum. “We will get the money in hand first — all of it — before we spend a dime,” he says.Jim White, of Porter, White & Co. Inc., an investment banking firm based in Birmingham, Ala., that consulted with the athletics committee, says the potential benefits to moving to Division I-A are very large and the risks are very small.“When we took the probability of success and multiplied it by the benefits and adjusted for the risks, we recommended the approval of the proposal,” he says. “We believe there is a good chance the financing can be raised.” White adds that his firm estimated the cost of operating the program at $5 million while the projected revenues that will come with Division I-A status are $11 million. Board chairwoman Catherine Wright says the vote shows the institution is willing to take steps to move the university forward. “It’s an opportunity that every Black person can be proud of,” she says.Now that university officials have filed a declaration of intent, the university will have a two-year reclassification period to meet the applicable legislation, according to Jane Jankowski, NCAA spokesman.During that time, the university will have to meet compliance in three main areas — scheduling requirements, attendance and scholarships. To meet the scheduling requirements, at least 60 percent of the university’s football games must be against Division I-A schools. The attendance must have averaged 17,000 in paid tickets for home games during the immediate past four years, or it must have a stadium with a 30,000 seating capacity, plus a 17,000 average attendance for home games for at least one of the last four years. Football scholarships must total 85.If the requirements are met, the school will be reclassified to Division I-A. If they don’t meet the minimum attendance, they can have four years to fix that, Jankowski says.There are about 122 Division I-AA schools and about 114 Division I-A schools. Meanwhile, the board finds itself grappling with a replacement for Harris, who announced in April that he would resign from his job at the end of the academic year. He has said he will stay until his successor is appointed to ensure a smooth transition.
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