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Bemidji State's move to WCHA, Event Center brings better chance to compete at national level

Bemidji State head volleyball coach Laurie Bitter relays instructions to her players during a game last fall at BSU Gymnasium. Bemidji State's volleyball team competes in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, which has produced the last two Division II national champions. Pioneer File Photo/Eric Stromgren

(Editor's note: This report is the second of a two-part series on how Bemidji State's move to the WCHA will impact BSU's Division II programs. The first part appeared in Friday's edition and is attached as a link with this story.)

When athletic director Rick Goeb arrived at Bemidji State eight years ago, the men's hockey team was in NCAA Division I infancy and the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference was one of the weaker leagues in Division II.

Fast forward to 2009 and Bemidji State is one year from becoming a full member of the prestigious Western Collegiate Hockey Association and the Northern Sun has developed into arguably the premier Division II league in America.

"There's been more change than ever in our landscape. It's amazing," Goeb said. "We're going to be a different athletic program and maybe a different university. But we are definitely changing and just look at how far we've come."

Bemidji State's acceptance into the WCHA and eventual transition to the Bemidji Regional Event Center will bring in additional revenue for the university starting as soon as 2010-11.

Goeb has pledged administrative support to competitively fund all programs and is hoping to work in tandem with alumni and Beaver Pride to give the Division II programs a better chance at winning NSIC championships.

Reaching that level will take time.

Scholarships and the Northern Sun

The 14-team NSIC turned into an ultra-competitive league last season when the North Central Conference folded and it absorbed four large-enrollment schools - Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State, Augustana and Minnesota State-Mankato. All but Augustana are members of the WCHA.

Athletic budgets can be generally compared to the size of the institution. The more students, the bigger the budgets and the more available opportunities there are to generate alumni contributions.

St. Cloud State has an enrollment of some 15,000 students while Bemidji State has about 5,000.

"When you take a program, like for example St. Cloud, they are a pretty good-sized school and a pretty good-sized athletic program," Goeb said. "We may not be able to be at the exact same level in everything but we believe we're going to be able to move forward substantially because of everything that's happening with our program, because of the Bemidji Regional Event Center, because of getting into the WCHA and because the Division II sports has also gained notoriety by adding these new programs."

With more money to work with, there are more scholarships to offer and in turn, better athletes to attract and create better teams. The standings in every NSIC sport often are reflective of the amount of funding athletic programs receive.

Those funding lines are noticeable in the major team sports: football, men's and women's basketball, volleyball. Those sports along with men's and women's hockey are also deemed the primary funding priorities set by the Bemidji State Intercollegiate Faculty Organization.

The NCAA limits each Division II institution to 90 scholarships (45 for men's programs and 45 for women's programs). Within that number, there are set limits for each sport. The NSIC limits a maximum 24 scholarships to football and abides by the NCAA limits of 10 each for basketball and eight for volleyball.

Bemidji State is not fully funded on a scholarship level in any sport other than men's and women's hockey. That is not unusual in the NSIC as no program is fully funded to its full complement of 90 scholarships.

A snapshot of BSU's programs

Bemidji State's funding priority programs are behind the rest of the Northern Sun in scholarship levels.

In football, Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch estimates he will be working with 16 or 17 scholarships next season. He characterized that number as in the bottom third of the NSIC and noted Duluth, St. Cloud, Augustana, Mankato, Wayne State, Winona State and Upper Iowa are fully funded at 24 scholarships.

Duluth, Mankato and Wayne State reached the 24-team Division II tournament last season. Duluth won the national championship.

Bemidji State finished 4-6 in NSIC play last season and has never reached the national tournament.

"We need more scholarships, there's no doubt about it," Tesch said. "The difference between us and sports like basketball or volleyball is that we just need so many. Those sports can sometimes win with one or two good players. But we're making progress."

Tesch became proactive over the last few years in reconnecting with alumni to develop a fundraising campaign. It has worked as Bemidji State football has grown from a level of 13 scholarships in 2006.

"We knew if we wanted to stay afloat we couldn't wait for the BREC or the alumni to come around," Tesch said. "We've got a good program in line and it just started with some phone calls because some just didn't know how to give back."

For Laurie Bitter's volleyball program, developing a competitive team has been a challenge. Bitter is entering her third season as head coach with an overall record of 17-42 at BSU.

"We need it (funding) because we play in the toughest conference in the country," Bitter said. "We've produced national champions (Concordia-St. Paul) two years in a row. That's what makes it tough because we're playing in the toughest conference and we're probably the lowest-funded program. That's why going to the WCHA is huge because it gives the chance for us to equal the playing field a little bit."

Bitter said she will be working with about 3.5 scholarships next season and that amount makes recruiting top players a difficult task.

"It's tough to bring them here and say that I've got nothing to offer them until some other players graduate and scholarships open up. There's only so much to split up and I just tell them that this is a great place to be and if they work hard they can maybe eventually get a small ride or a full ride," Bitter said. "Their parents spend a lot of money growing up in hopes of a kickback when getting to college. The better kids want the scholarships."

Head men's basketball coach Matt Bowen is entering his fourth season at Bemidji State. He began a major rebuilding process in 2006-07 and brought stability to the program by recruiting Minnesota athletes. The win total each season has improved since he took over but .500 has been an elusive mark.

Bowen is 19-63 at BSU and currently works with six scholarships. He said that the majority of NSIC schools are working with nine or more scholarships.

"It's a player's game - I need players who can score and defend and you're only as good as your talent level," Bowen said. "When you have a small scholarship pool, your depth is shallow as well. Extra players make better practices and better teams."

NSIC men's basketball is also producing national champions. Winona State has won two of the last four national titles and Southwest Minnesota State reached the round of eight last season.

"As a Division II program, any little bit (of funding) helps because when you start out from nothing you can only go up and move forward," Bowen said.

Bowen refused to make any excuses or rationalizations for the struggles the men's basketball program faces in the NSIC.

"None of this comes to a surprise to anyone who took a job here," Bowen said. "We can use Division I hockey now in the same way large schools use Division I football per se. It was understood when taking this job that we needed to get hockey where it needed to be and concessions would have to be made. There just isn't enough to go around. You have to give credit to Rick Goeb, (BSU president) Jon Quistgaard and (BSU men's hockey coach) Tom Serratore. When I came here the WCHA and Event Center was just a dream. But they were able to break through all the negativity out there and keep on plugging away and now that day is here. This is a positive thing for our university."

Long-term future at BSU

While additional revenue will benefit existing programs, Goeb said it will not create any new programs. Bemidji State had nationally competitive wrestling, swimming and cross country ski programs in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

The admission of BSU into the WCHA will also have no immediate effect on the men's track program. The administration plans to cut the program after the upcoming season unless certain conditions are met.

"The goals still need to be met. We're not going to deviate from that," Goeb said. "Part of the goals are roster management, it was not just financial. So balancing our Title IX numbers -- our men's and women's numbers -- and we're following through with that. We need proportionality with that and we're going to get there."

Title IX, the federal law that mandates equal participation opportunities between genders, will also guide administrative plans in dispersing future revenue.

"We're not going to hold a sport back," Goeb said. "If a sport can bring in some funding we want to do everything to honor that request," Goeb said. "Obviously we have to abide by Title IX - gender equity - so we do have considerations as money comes in ... we want to filter that to that sport. If alumni says, 'look we're going to support a program, we want this program to get more scholarships' we're going to do everything we can to make sure that happens."

Bemidji State's move to the BREC will also open an opportunity for Bemidji State to improve athletic facilities. Goeb said there are plans in store to convert John Glas Fieldhouse into an all-season training building by installing artificial turf, adding weight equipment and storage space. There is no specific remodeling date planned for The Glas.

"We're a different program now," Goeb said. "We have to be and we have to address it that way. In order for us to compete and have success our fundraising plan has to change and it is changing for the better. ... Ultimately we certainly want to compete for national titles. Right now in the NSIC if you can win a conference championship, you've got a darn good shot at winning a national title. You can say the same thing about the WCHA. If you win the WCHA you've got a pretty good shot of being competitive in the national tournament as well and that's the direction we're going."