By James Summerlin, Sports Editor
Union University has been a competitive force in the NAIA and TranSouth Conference in recent history. The Bulldog athletic program won eight straight TranSouth All-Sport Trophies and built a winning tradition. After months of planning, the Union administration has decided to move the athletic department to the next level.
Union has been considering athletic alignment opportunities in the past few years, but at the time felt comfortable with the current NAIA placement in the TranSouth Athletic Conference. However, some teams Union has competed against in the past, such as Belmont, Trevecca Nazarene, Lipscomb and Azusa Pacific, had moved or were beginning to transition into the NCAA ranks.
“We saw ourselves being with peer schools 18 years ago with schools in the NAIA,” said Dr. Jerry Tidwell, senior vice president for university relations. “But so many schools that were our peer schools were leaving” for the NCAA.
After studying different venues and options for the athletic program, Union trustees approved a plan to apply to the NCAA Division II on April 29. On July 11, the NCAA approved Union’s application to join.
Union’s jump to Division II was not just an athletic move in order to keep up with other schools. Union’s administration said the decision was for the university as a whole and came in a timely manner.
“This move was more strategic than most people think,” Tidwell said. “You do not just go into the NCAA. They go to you. They turn down more schools than they accept. It has been two to three years of consideration and at least a full 12 months of work and study for us to make an application.
“There was nothing snappy about the decision at all. We prayed over it and thought it out. This seems to be where we want to be 10 years down the road.”
The NCAA gives Union an exposure the NAIA could not. Union’s administration said it hopes the move will give more publicity to the school and the athletic program.
“All of our teams have excelled,” Tidwell said. “But the NAIA does not have a national venue for us to talk about. The NCAA and the Gulf South Conference will allow Union’s name and who we are to be exposed nationally.”
Tommy Sadler, Union athletic director, added, “The move is not just an athletic move. It is a university move. The NCAA gives us instant brand recognition. Everyone across the globe knows what the NCAA is.”
In late October, Union officials will attend an orientation at the NCAA headquarters. Union will receive forms and information to begin the process of becoming compliant with the NCAA rules and regulations.
Union is now considered a candidate for the NCAA and will begin the process to become an active NCAA member. In the first year, Union will be allowed to continue playing NAIA schools and compete for championships. The Union athletic program will have “candidacy status” and will not be an official member of the NCAA this year. The university will not be expected to fully comply with the NCAA standards, but they must be working toward that goal.
Once Union finishes going its first year of the provisional status, the next year will consist of a regular season schedule with Division II opponents, but no postseason play. In the third and last year of the process, Union will move into a probationary year.
This transition period is designed to allow teams entering the NCAA to move toward being compliant in scholarships, recruiting and rules. By the third year of the transition period, Union must be fully compliant with the NCAA rules and guidelines.
In order to be compliant with NCAA standards, Union announced Dr. Gary Williams as the university’s NCAA compliance officer.
“The rules and regulations will just be different,” Williams said. “Let’s say a certain sport has ‘x’ number of scholarships in that sport. What might have been allowed in NAIA may be different in NCAA. We have to be compliant in all fronts. It is my goal as the compliance officer to (make Union) compliant in this first year in preparation for 2012.”
On July 28, the Gulf South Conference announced a unanimous vote to bring Union into the conference. Leadership from the conference has articulated how they see Union joining as an addition to their brand, rather than a hindrance or just another school.
“Our application has been accepted with glowing colors,” Willams said. “(The NCAA was) very impressed. The conference’s leadership was 100 percent supportive of us being in the Gulf South Conference.”
The GSC hosts nine schools currently and will add Shorter University along with Union to make an 11-school conference in 2012. The competition for the Union athletic program will most likely be tougher in the years to come.
“It has been called the ‘SEC of the Division II’ because every sport across the board is either winning a national championship or they are right there at it,” said Steven Aldridge, Union’s sports information director. “You have to beat them to win national championships. Every sport is going to be competitive; the competition is deeper in Division II.”
This increased level of competition has raised questions about peer schools. While in the NAIA, Union routinely faced other Christian universities with similar mission statements and athletic competition. Moving to the Gulf South Conference can be seen as a move away from peer schools, but the Union administration says it believes the transition to the Gulf South Conference is a good fit, despite the secular universities Union will be playing.
“From a missional stance, Division II has evolved the ‘life and the balance’ component,” Tidwell said. “This means the student-athlete works in academics, but also in community service. It seemed a custom fit for Union already, because so many of our teams are already in international mission projects.”
Tidwell went on to say the Division II focuses on the true meaning of a student-athlete, in which academic standards are still high.
The Union administration has expressed excitement for this move and has voiced a confidence in this decision.
“It is my goal for our athletics program at Union to develop a program where other schools come to us and say, ‘We aspire to do what you do,’” Tidwell said.