By Michael Whitmer
It took vision and hard work, but also a planets-are-aligning set of circumstances for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to schedule a Thursday morning news conference at Tsongas Center, where school officials will announce that its athletic teams, starting this fall, will compete in Division 1 as a member of the America East Conference.
A driven, respected chancellor — former US congressman Marty Meehan — last spring established a strategic planning committee for athletics, which made the recommendation of bumping the River Hawks from Division 2 (they’ve been in the Northeast-10 Conference since 2000) to Division 1 in all sports. Except for men’s hockey, that is. UMass-Lowell has been a member of Division 1’s Hockey East since 1984.
The desire to join the more prestigious and visible Division 1 is one thing; nowadays a home is required. Opportunity presented itself, unexpectedly and nearly simultaneously, when Boston University decided to leave America East for the Patriot League, which it will do on July 1. Suddenly, a school that felt qualified and ready for the leap to Division 1 athletics had an interested conference — headquartered in nearby Cambridge, no less — seeking replacement options.
Less than a year after exploring the feasibility of Division 1 sports, UMass-Lowell is accepting a membership invitation from a conference that reunites it with rivals the River Hawks already play in hockey, and gives them everything that was on their dare-to-dream list.
“People have recognized what’s happened on campus the last five years and they’re thinking this is what’s next. In terms of elevating the institution, we want to stay on that path,” said Dana Skinner, the longtime athletic director at UMass-Lowell. “At many universities, Division 1 athletics is the front porch of the institution. Whether that’s right, wrong, fair, or unfair, it’s the way people view an institution. Their first image of an institution, in a lot of ways, is what happens with their intercollegiate athletic program. That’s the world we live in, and we want to take full advantage and make sure our best foot is forward.
“This is a new era, obviously, for athletics, but for the institution and the region it’s very important. Division 1 athletics can position our university, regionally and nationally, in a way that I’m not sure we could otherwise. It’s one of those transformational moments.”
UMass-Lowell will become the second school in the University of Massachusetts system to compete in Division 1, joining UMass-Amherst. Instead of animosity or opposition, University of Massachusetts president Robert Caret said the reaction to the move has been all positive.
“I did not get any pushback, from on campus or off. Usually I would get letters about a move such as this. I did not get any,” Caret said. “It’s big. When you join a conference and a peer group, they’re looking at your athletics initially, but they really look at academics. They don’t want to be associated with a campus that might hurt their reputation, so it speaks very highly how they view UMass-Lowell. I think it will be great for the campus, the region, the alumni.”
What jumped out at the planning committee, Meehan and Skinner said, was that the schools UMass-Lowell most closely resembled — based on enrollment, academic profile, and standing as a major, public research university — had one thing in common: Their athletic programs all participated in Division 1. A number of them are America East members.
“If you look at UMass-Lowell’s peers — Georgia State University, San Diego State University, University of Maine, Maryland-Baltimore County, University of New Hampshire, University of Rhode Island, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Virginia Commonwealth University — they’re all Division 1,” Meehan said. “When we looked at our peers, and looked at the direction we’re headed academically, this just made sense.”
Much of the credit for the move goes to Meehan, a 1978 UMass-Lowell graduate who became chancellor in 2007. Under his watch, the school’s endowment has grown from $37 million to $55 million, enrollment has increased by 40 percent, the average SAT score is up 56 points, and research expenditures have jumped 66 percent.
Others have noticed. US News & World Report has named UMass-Lowell one of the top 100 public universities in the country for 2013.
“Their institutional profile and the trajectory of the school overall is first and foremost the most appealing attribute about the institution,” said Amy Huchthausen, commissioner of the America East Conference. “Our league is realistic in terms of where we stand in the grand scheme of things from Division 1 athletics. We don’t have the money that some of the bigger conferences do to throw around and maybe leverage to try and attract certain schools. We get kind of who we are.
“Geography is limiting to a certain extent, so when you start to check off all of those different factors, I know there’s not a lot of institutions in the footprint that match [UMass-Lowell’s] profile. So we feel pretty lucky that we found a school that fits our academic profile, has demonstrated athletic success in Division 1 and in Division 2, and that they’re ready to make the move.”
UMass-Lowell has 17 athletic teams, and will add men’s and women’s lacrosse.
Schools that move to Division 1, as UMass-Lowell is about to discover, face short-term challenges: Teams must wait four years before becoming eligible to compete for NCAA championships, although the school can designate one sport to serve just a two-year transition period; in UMass-Lowell’s case, that will be field hockey, since the River Hawks have become a Division 2 power, winning national titles in 2005 and 2010.
Waiting four years to play for championships could negatively impact recruiting, but that’s not the only issue. Elevating an athletics program to Division 1 brings a much larger financial commitment. Additional coaches and staff members will need to be hired, and the number of scholarships must increase, dramatically in some sports.
It’s a given that it will cost more to operate at the Division 1 level; Skinner said exact financial projections are still being finalized. What UMass-Lowell is counting on is that revenues will see a similar spike.
“If we want the stature that we think we deserve, we have to have a Division 1 sports program, even if it’s going to cost us some money,” said Michael Carter, chairman of UMass-Lowell’s economics department and president of its faculty senate, which endorsed the proposal. “If you want to be anything other than a regional school in a state system, if we really want to have a national reputation, we have to do this. Our chancellor is a genius when it comes to branding, and this is part of the brand. He’s made a number of bold moves, and most of them seem to be working because we’ve been growing rapidly. You can’t really stop, you have to keep pushing.”
That’s the kind of mentality Meehan has strived for since leaving Congress and returning to his alma mater. Since then, the school has purchased a downtown hotel for $15 million and turned it into an inn and conference center, and taken over the Tsongas Center, which had been operating at a loss, from the city.
Those moves have worked. Meehan is confident this one will, too.
“I suppose it would be easier to not bother with this, because there will be challenges,” Meehan said. “I think this is in line with a lot of the decisions we’ve made to move forward. We think playing in America East and Division 1 requires excellence from our athletic department. Everything we’ve done at Lowell over the last six years, we’ve asked our faculty, our deans, our staff to push it to a higher level. This is almost the final piece of it, the athletic program, and we want to push that to a higher level.
“I think the evidence is clear: Our academic rankings are higher than most people realize, and I think with a move like this, where we’re associating with other public research institutions that put a premium on academic quality, it’s going to enhance our reputation.”
Tough times and losing seasons might lie ahead, at least in the short term. As AD, Skinner has the difficult task of finding adequate scheduling for his teams almost immediately, since the move to America East takes effect in the 2013-14 school year. Now, though, he’ll be able to pick up the phone and see if an Atlantic Coast Conference school might want to host the River Hawks in basketball. Or if a Southeastern Conference power has a spot open for a nonconference baseball series.
“That’s pretty exciting stuff. Those games would be special events,” Skinner said. “When you make a change like this, you make the university a better place to be at for the students, and a better place to be from for the alums.”