Division I. The tip top of collegiate athletics. The highest point of the NCAA. With the largest conferences, highest levels of competition and biggest television deals, it’s where most schools and universities want to be.
One would think.
Currently, around a dozen colleges across the country are in the process of transitioning their programs to become a Division I school, but 30 years ago Augusta University did the opposite – it moved down.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Jaguars were members in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) before moving to the NCAA’s Division II. Then, in 1981, Augusta joined the Division I ranks as a founding member of the Big South Conference. After completing the transition, the Jaguars stayed in the conference from 1986 through 1991. Then Augusta made another move by going back to Division II.
“For us, it was strictly about finances because of what the NCAA was demanding at that time,” said Clint Bryant, the longtime athletics director of Augusta University. “To be a Division I member was pretty steep for us at Augusta University.”
Currently, Division I member schools complete minimum requirements to compete at the highest level. Schools must sponsor 16 sports at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level and 14 at the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), allocate scholarships to certain sports and sexes to ensure Title IX compliance, and comply with certain recruiting and grant rules, along with a few other specifications.
These requirements posed a challenge to a small school like Augusta, and the ongoing struggles to satisfy them led it to return to Division II, joining the Peach Belt Conference in which the school still competes today, with an asterisk.
That asterisk – a successful men’s golf program that stayed D-I.
“We did have a golf program and had won the Big South Conference out of those five or six years, we won the conference five or six times,” Bryant said. “We had the opportunity to take a multi-classification in Division I, which allowed you to keep one men’s and one women’s sport at the Division I level as long as it wasn’t men’s or women’s basketball or football.
“We took that route and went into the Peach Belt Conference where we probably had more rivalries than we did in the Big South.”
Augusta’s move back to Division II for most of its sports has proven to be the right decision over the course of the past 31 years. But athletic directors at many schools of similar size still must ask where their school best belongs.
Schools like Queens University of Charlotte, which is making the jump from Division II to join the ASUN Conference, or the University of Southern Indiana, who started the jump from Division III to the Summit League, a DI conference, are asking that question now.
For many schools, where they belong comes down to what they can afford. Matt Brown, media entrepreneur and editor of Extra Points with Matt Brown, detailed the struggles many mid-major programs face.
“Over the last 20 years, it’s become more expensive to run a Division I institution,” Brown said. “Salaries across all sports, but especially football and basketball, have gone up significantly. There are new requirements for staffing for trainers, for academic support specialists, counselors, the whole backend operation you need to keep something like this running.
“Your revenues often don’t grow enough to meet that demand. There’s certainly an exposure benefit and championship competition benefit and all the other reasons you want to be Division I. But if you’re located in a part of the country where you can join a Division II league without gigantic travel, you could over time potentially save a lot of money because you won’t have to hire nearly as many staffers, sponsor as many sports or pay as high salaries as you will even as a low major in Division I.”
Savannah State University found that out not too long ago.
The Tigers competed in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) from 1969 to 2000, making the transition to Division I without a conference affiliation in 2002. The Division I run lasted 15 years, with university officials making the decision to drop back to Division II and rejoin the SIAC.
It was a money thing for the Tigers too.
“At this time financially, not just Savannah State, but most athletic departments in the country are struggling with the finances of operating athletics,” Savannah State University President Cheryl Dozier told reporters when the university announced the move. “Therefore, we have to make the decision that’s in the best interest of the institution as well as our athletic program.”
The football program – most universities’ largest moneymaker – had six one-win seasons during its time at the FCS level, winning no more than three games in its best season. Men’s basketball had only three winning seasons from 2008-17, the same as the women’s program.
Money can be a make-or-break for many schools deciding which NCAA Division is best for them. But Bryant asks another question … does it really matter?
Sure, Augusta’s move was a big deal to the community around it 30 years ago, but with colleges today and the climate of power conferences and big money, Bryant wonders who really cares about the mid-majors and below?
“Now the landscape has changed,” Bryant said. “There is so much money in the Power Five Conferences and some of those conferences like Conference USA, the Big East, ones that spend close to Power Five money. For example, the Southeastern Conference gave each school $54.6 million dollars this year, the ACC gave each school $38.1 million. The Big Ten gave each school $49 million. The PAC-12 gave $33.6 million – that was their share from the conference.”
Bryant noted all of these numbers and brought up the example of NCAA Golf. The NCAA changed the format of the championship game to three days of medal play followed by three days of match play for the top eight schools. Since this change in 2007, the men’s golf tournament has been dominated by these big money schools. Augusta University and Pepperdine have been the only two non-Power 5 schools to win the National Championship since the rule change.
“On the individual champion at NCAA golf, there’s only been one person since the 2007 time period outside of the Power Five – Broc Everett of Augusta University who won that in 2008,” he said. “Now the kind of money being spent at the Power Five level, it’s going to be very interesting to see if anybody else can win it.”
Bryant suspects more schools will be forced out of Division I because their budgets can’t keep up.
“You’ve got the University of Georgia, and they have a [$169 million] dollar athletic budget,” Bryant said. “And then you go to little Georgia Southern and that’s a $29 million, $30 million dollar budget. Guess what – people are spending [millions] at Ohio State and [millions] at North Carolina and don’t want someone spending $30, 40, 50 million telling them what to do.
“Basically what we’ve developed at the Power Five level, especially in men’s basketball and football, it’s crushing them in every way.”
Bryant’s solution: blow up the current system.
“I don’t see it going from Division I to Division II or other divisional moves,” Bryant said. “It’ll be interesting in 2030 –will there be a Division I, or will it be power conferences in Division I? It might not be called Division I, call it what they are – Power Five Mega Conferences.”
He brought up the example of USC and UCLA bailing from the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten. For any D-II program in the country, a move like that would seem like financial suicide from a athletic department’s perspective, having to fund cross-country region games or matches. But with Power Five and big money, all is possible.
Bryant also spoke on the impact that current aspects of collegiate athletics have on smaller D-I and D-II schools like Augusta. He gave the example of the transfer portal, where Augusta lost two talented women’s golfers to Power Five schools, along with a tennis player who hit the portal for a Power Five program. If he was entering college today, Patrick Reed doesn’t become a Jaguar, Bryant figures.
“If you are an up and coming star at a Division II, III, NAIA, doesn’t matter, or lower Division I team, you probably won’t ever be a junior or senior at that school because you’ll be tempted to see see what you can do at a bigger larger school, with more exposure and NIL deals,” Bryant said.
So as schools like Lindenwood University complete their moves up to the Division I ranks, they’ll get some of the exposure and competition that comes with the NCAA’s highest level. But they’ll have some issues they won’t expect. Just ask Bryant, who’s overseen a few moves and sees the Division system as one that’s crumbling apart.
“I think now the issue we dealt with in 1990 and the issues we’re dealing with now would no longer be an issue,” Bryant said. “It would be, ‘Where do you fall in the paradigm outside of the Power Five conferences and those conferences that spend Power 5 money?’
“Augusta University spends $4.5 million, Georgia Southern spends $30 million on athletics, the University of Georgia spends [$169 million] – do they belong in the same classification?”