Two Divisions for Division II?

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.10, November 2006,

Come 2009, more than one football team could be hoisting an NCAA Division II national championship trophy. A proposal to create two championship subdivisions has been introduced by the Division II Football Task Force and will be voted on at the 2007 NCAA Convention in January.

If passed, the proposal would allow schools offering fewer football scholarships the chance to compete for a national title without having to face traditional powerhouses that offer the maximum allotment of 36. The proposal would create the Freedom Division for teams awarding 18 to 36 full-time equivalencies and the Liberty Division for teams offering fewer than 18. The number of teams advancing to the postseason would remain at 24, with 16 in the Freedom Division and eight in the Liberty Division.

The proposal comes in the wake of a 2005 attempt to reduce the maximum number of scholarships allowed from 36 to 24. Though the vote was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin, it spurred discussion about what could be done to bring parity to Division II football and eventually led to the creation of the Division II Football Task Force.

NCAA Division II Vice President Mike Racy says the proposal is a good alternative to the always-contentious idea of reducing scholarships. “Schools that want to continue offering 36 scholarships could, but if there are schools that can’t be competitive in the sport with the number of scholarships they offer, a second championship opportunity would be available,” he says.

The idea is not to fracture Division II, says Charles Ambrose, President of Pfeiffer University and chair of the Division II Presidents Council. Rather, he equates it to how Division I-A has different bowl games. “With the range of equivalencies and scholarship limits in place across Division II,” Ambrose says, “the structure proposed by the task force would provide an equitable fit.”

There is concern among administrators that if the balance issue is left unresolved, the matter of creating an equal playing field could loom over Division II football, and scholarship-reduction proposals will keep popping up. “If this proposal doesn’t go through, some administrators say they’ll propose another reduction in scholarships,” Ambrose says. “Then, football could become this persistent cloud that hangs over the identity of the entire division. That is not healthy.”

To counteract that approach, the Presidents Council is considering requiring a two-thirds vote instead of a simple majority to approve any change to scholarship limits in the future. If the vote-margin change is approved, the issue of addressing parity in Division II football could be put to rest even if the split championship vote fails. “It would certainly reduce the likelihood that we’ll see future scholarship-reduction proposals unless there’s a groundswell of overwhelming support,” Racy says.

The dual-championship proposal could see substantial changes before it faces a vote. Racy says several teams in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference—which allows a maximum of 24 scholarships—are concerned they would have to reduce scholarships to be allowed to play at the lower level and may move to have the Liberty Division cap raised.

What might be other ramifications of the rule? Racy says the split could attract more schools from Division III and the NAIA to compete in Division II’s lower level. It could also lead to a shake-up of conferences within Division II as schools seek to align themselves with others playing for the same championship. The legislation would require conferences to decide by Sept. 1, 2008, whether to play in the Freedom or Liberty Division.

Would the Division II national championship hold the same meaning if both a national powerhouse and a small, upstart program can claim it? Bob Boerigter, Athletic Director at Northwest Missouri State University and a member of the task force, admits that creating two divisions could create a perception of a devalued achievement, but doesn’t buy into the theory. “If you look at a high school model where some states award five state championships for basketball, the smallest school that wins is just as proud as the largest school,” he says. “In the end, a national championship is a national championship, and has tremendous value to those who have won it.”