The major decision barely hit the athletic radar, even in Polk County.
Though mostly unnoticed, Western Oregon University's move to a higher-rent district in college athletics should no longer go unquestioned.
Simply put: Western Oregon's move from NAIA to NCAA Division II has been nothing short of a disaster for the university, its athletic program, and most importantly its athletes and coaches.
Division what? They moved where, when? Yes, outside of the University of Oregon and Oregon State, most people aren't familiar with the numbers and lettering that classify college athletics.
That reality doesn't mean this careless move by Polk County's largest employer should go without being scrutinized.
When we weren't paying attention in the late '90s, Western Oregon leap-frogged up to NCAA Division II.
Under the leadership of then-president Betty Youngblood, current athletic director Jon Carey accepted this move. Apparently there was a plan to successfully make this move. This plan has never been implemented.
Being a former sportswriter who has covered athletics at three Division I colleges and two small colleges _ including WOU _ I'm familiar with the key elements it takes to succeed in college sports. One must have:
1. Administrative support.
2. Proper funding to compete in the desired division.
3. Quality coaching.
4. Talented athletes.
If a college or university is missing something in any of these areas, that school will most likely fail in athletics.
It's no secret that Oregon's and Oregon State's rise to football prominence came partly through funding from the wallets of well-heeled boosters Phil Knight and the Reser Family.
Western Oregon has no such booster. Western was a cash-poor NAIA school, yet somewhere the WOU administration ignored the all-important financial aspects of college athletics and moved up.
They still do not have the money to succeed in NCAA Division II athletics. A simple case study would have concluded this move was based neither on fiscal responsibility nor fair play. This writer is led to believe the move was rooted in misguided pride, misinformation, and faulty budgeting. WOU may play in the same league as Western and Central Washington, but is a weak peer.
Here are the Division II numbers few know about: The division allows a maximum of 36 football scholarships; Western Oregon has maybe seven. The division allows 10 scholarships for men's basketball; WOU has maybe two, and nearly all of their conference opponents have the full allotment in the winter sport.
In "athletics-speak" this is called competing on an uneven playing field and setting your coaches and players up for losing -- yet the D-II participation goes on. Shockingly, the school actually cut its number of scholarships last year due to budget constraints.
Western Oregon administrators will point to the success of its fine baseball and track and field programs -- which also are competing way under scholarship numbers -- as a reason to keep playing in Division II. They'll also point out that the school was second in the all-sports trophy contest for the Great Northwest Athletic Association.
Don't buy the administrative position, as most of their Northwest opponents are also woefully under the scholarship numbers in these sports. Western has allowed its two marquee sports, football and men's basketball; and two of its storied programs, volleyball and women's basketball, to suffer greatly by not having appropriate scholarship numbers.
It won't get any better either.
Western does not have a full-time person raising funds for athletics and has no plans on hiring one. Meanwhile, our rich neighbor Western Washington University has a pair of fund raisers and seven (count `em!) people with assistant athletic director titles to keep its Division II factory running smoothly. This has allowed WWU to offer 27 football scholarships and 10 scholarships for both men's and women's basketball.
Western Oregon, meanwhile, has no assistant athletic directors, as Mr. Carey must run his ship without needed assistance.
Knowing of this incredible disparity in financial resources and administrative support, the big question is: Why does WOU march on in Division II? We've been told it saves money because the NCAA pays for athletes to attend nationals, while the NAIA does not. Well, if your athletes aren't competing at nationals, this point is moot.
Division II affiliation has also made a mess of scheduling. The Wolves now have to play league teams twice in football, while not playing regional and longtime foes Southern Oregon or Eastern Oregon. Frequently missing from the WOU schedule have been longtime local rivals Linfield and Willamette -- though both of those private colleges were on the football docket this year, each handing WOU embarrassing losses. These results alone offer proof positive that Division II affiliation means nothing on the playing field in Monmouth.
The fair and fiscally prudent thing to do is for the university to admit it made a mistake, and that it doesn't have and most likely will never have the resources and money to compete successfully in NCAA Division II. Swallow your pride, move back to NAIA, start winning and making it fun again, and return playing more local rivals. People won't be angry at the move, they'll be thankful. Believe it or not, most alums and fans were happy being successful in NAIA.
There's nothing wrong in admitting a mistake and correcting it. What's worse is to stubbornly continue in a losing direction.
(Tim Sullivan is a 1986 graduate of Western Oregon now living in Boise, Idaho.)