By Natalie Perez
LOGOS STAFF WRITER
The University of the Incarnate Word is set to begin its four-year transition to NCAA Division I athletics on July 1, starting with its membership in the Southland Conference.
“The Southland Conference, which is a Division I conference, was the one that granted us (UIW) an invitation, and as of July 1 of this year, all of our 21 sports will move from Division II NCAA to Division I,” said Dr. Lou J. Agnese Jr., UIW’s president for the past 28 years.
Currently a member of the Division II Lone Star Conference, Incarnate Word will move to the Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) level in Southland.
While being the most suitable due to location, Southland is also the only FCS-affiliated conference the university could efficiently manage travel and operating costs and missed class time for UIW athletes.
“The university is continuing to grow and build what we call the ‘Cardinal brand’ or the ‘UIW brand,’ ” Agnese said. “This year, we’re the fourth-largest private university in Texas, so in order to be able to compete with other institutions of our size like TCU (Texas Christian University), Baylor, SMU (Southern Methodist University) and other Division I schools, we made the decision to move from Division II to Division I.”
Rick Smith, UIW’s licensing coordinator and external business manager in athletics, said with Division I people can expect UIW to be on TV, radio and in the newspapers more often; games will have larger tailgates; and due to UIW partnering with Nelligan Sports Marketing — giving Nelligan the exclusive rights to manage the university’s athletic corporate sponsorship program — that bigger things will occur during games.
“However, most importantly, five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road, we’re going to establish ourselves as a really good Division I (university) to beat academically and athletically,” Smith said.
The main purpose of this move came from a branding standpoint and, consequently, the positive impact a bigger brand could mean for the future of UIW students.
Student Government Association President Jonathan “Johnny” Guajardo, a communication arts senior with a concentration in production, said this move would give UIW students access to a brand they didn’t have before and name-recognition.
“When they go somewhere they’ll be able to say, ‘I went to Incarnate Word’ and everyone will know (where that is),” Guajardo said. “It will really help our students become more well-known throughout the country and not just in the regional area. Right now we have a really big lock on San Antonio — everyone knows Incarnate Word — but that’s going to keep going, and eventually the goal for Division I is to get the ‘rep’ that we have here expanded elsewhere.”
Agnese said timing was critical in the move to Division I.
“When we started, our athletic programs were NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics),” Agnese said. “We moved from NAIA to the NCAA Division II and now to the NCAA Division I, so as the university has grown — and as the university has grown in stature at the same time — athletic development relates to the development of everything else. Professional schools, pharmacy, optometry, physical therapy and the discussion of the possibility of the medical school — all of it is just the continued building of the university brand.”
Over time, the UIW community can expect to see an increase in admission standards that would foster competition for entry and add more appeal to UIW degrees; facility upgrades and improvements for intramural and club sports programs, the Wellness Center, Alice McDermott Convocation Center, and possibly even classrooms; supplementary academic and advising support — since Division I players tend to need their own academic advisers; additional studying spaces and computer labs; an increase in available financial assistance — including scholarship offerings for the teams so they qualify for Division I; and bigger-named opponents to play against.
“Nothing’s going to happen overnight,” Agnese said. “Things will happen with time.”
To accommodate a bigger home football game, for example, “we’ve been in discussion with SAISD (San Antonio Independent School District), which has a big facility across the highway from us,” Agnese said. “They are in the process of renovating that facility — expanding that facility — and it will also be used by the university in the future as we have need for a larger facility for the expanded fan base.”
Smith said, “I don’t think the day-to-day person will see an instant change. The day-to-day athlete is still going to be an Incarnate Word student-athlete — academics are still going to come first.”
Agnese, who thinks football has built school spirit and Cardinal support for all UIW programs, wants students to have the full college experience.
“We did not want the student experience here to be different than if they were going to UT in Austin or Texas A&M,” Agnese said. “Football is basically part of college life — especially in Texas.”
“Football brings infrastructure,” Smith said. “It brings notoriety. And a lot of people — like it or not — like football and think it’s a big part of the college experience.”
Agnese said, “If you think of schools that you know outside of Texas, most likely, the reason you’ve heard of the school is because of their athletic program, so this (Division I) goes hand-in-hand.”
UIW plans to be considered an NCAA Division I team for scheduling purposes in 2014 and hopefully will be a fully eligible member for NCAA championship events in 2017.
“This next year is going to be a difficult year because even though we’re official members of the Southland Conference, we’re not eligible for certain rights, so that puts more pressure on the teams, recruiting, and all the things that have to occur to get ready for Division I competition,” Agnese said.
“We are still a transitioning member,” Smith said. “We haven’t paid our dues.”
Agnese said, “For fall, I think there was a very strong recruiting class that’s coming in on top of some very good athletes that are here already. So I look forward to a very positive football season.”
UIW has already met most of the requirements to be a Division I institution, but not all: Division I institutions must offer at least 14 sports — seven for each gender, or six for men and eight for women. UIW offers 21: 10 for men and 11 for women; it must sponsor at least two team sports for each gender. UIW sponsors four male and five female team sports; it must have male and female teams, or participants, that participate in the fall, winter and spring seasons — UIW has sports that play in all three seasons; it must offer a minimum amount of financial aid without going over established maximums. UIW is in the clear. And UIW must play a minimum number of contests against Division I opponents — although some UIW teams have already competed against Division I opponents, UIW has not yet met this requirement but will play a Division I schedule once membership is granted.
Smith said, “Change is a very scary thing for a lot of people, but change is the only thing in life that is constant.”