Cumberland University has been unanimously admitted as a provisional member of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference, paving the way for the school's transition to NCAA Division II membership.
CU, a member of the NAIA since 1983 and currently in the Mid-South Conference, will submit its application to pursue membership in the NCAA and, if admitted by the membership committee next July, begin a three-year reclassification process during the 2014-15 school year, potentially becoming a full member by 2017-18.
“Becoming a member of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference is a major milestone for an athletic program that continues to grow its reputation for winning and outstanding student-athletes,” Cumberland president Harvill Eaton said. “Our athletic program is driven by a competitive spirit that I believe will complement our new conference.”
Making the move with CU will be Mid-South rival Georgetown [Ky.] College, a longtime NAIA football power. The move will enable Cumberland to maintain an active rivalry with Nashville's Trevecca Nazarene University, which is entering its third year of the membership process.
Facing the TV cameras inside Labry Hall for Wednesday's announcement, Eaton informed his Trevecca counterpart, Dan Boone, "We're looking forward to beating you again."
The eight full-fledged D-II members of the GMAC are Davis & Elkins College [Elkins W. Va.], Kentucky Wesleyan College [Owensboro, Ky.], Ohio Valley University [Vienna, W. Va.], Salem International University [Salem, W. Va.], Ursuline College [Pepper Pike, Ohio], Alderson Broaddus University [Philippi, W. Va.], Cedarville [Ohio] University and Central State University [Wilberforce, Ohio].
"The G-MAC is proud to sponsor Cumberland University for NCAA Division II membership and pleased to welcome the institution as a provisional member of our conference," league commissioner Tom Daeger said. "Cumberland is a proud institution that has embraced athletics as an integral piece of their mission and is poised to make a successful transition."
Cumberland, a 1,500-student private institution, fields 18 sports, 13 of which [baseball, softball, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's cross country, men's and women's golf, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's tennis and volleyball] are among the 17 sports the G-MAC currently sponsors. Football, bowling and wrestling, all of which CU sponsors, are emerging sports for the league.
"President Eaton and athletic director Ron Pavan have developed the athletics program into the 'front porch' of the institution, and their strong leadership has been evident as we have learned more about the institution over the last several months," Daeger said. "The Presidents' Council unanimously endorsed sponsoring Cumberland for NCAA Division II membership and look forward to welcoming Dr. Eaton to the council as a provisional member."
Pavan came to Cumberland from Ohio Valley, where he guided that athletic program from NAIA to D-II. He said the two divisions are comparable in terms of competition and that CU already has the facilities in place to be a viable member.
"We're very competitive now," Pavan said. "It'll be a great fit. What I like is we're in Nashville. Lebanon is Nashville and it's moving our way and having Trevecca and maybe some other institutions someday, we're attractive to have other things, teams, tournaments to bring support for Nashville.
"Getting the Nokes-Lasater [former Lebanon High football stadium] has helped us. Making the soccer move to [former on-campus football stadium] Lindsey Donnell and our baseball and upgrading our softball, we've really upgraded our facilities and that has been attractive to a lot of conferences."
Pavan said CU will remain in the NAIA and Mid-South Conference, and eligible for postseason play, for two more academic years until June 2015. The school will play a G-MAC schedule in '15-16 and be eligible for conference championships, but ineligible for NCAA postseason play. It will be '16-17 at the earliest before Cumberland can be eligible for NCAA tournaments, provided the school successfully completes its transition in that time. Pavan said it could take longer.
"It'll be a chore," Pavan said of the transition, which he went through at Ohio Valley in the late 1990s. "This is kind of restarting my career again. But I'm excited. This is really an exciting time."
Though the athletic transition may be relatively smooth [Trevecca's women's basketball won the league's regular-season championship last winter], the NCAA's infamous and voluminous rulebook will have to be dealt with.
"It's called an institutional self-study," Pavan said. "You have a compliance manual. Just like Division I, Division II has phone log sheets, practice log sheets, out-of-season log sheets. Compliance in regulations of the NCAA is huge.
"And that will be our task, creating a compliance committee. We already have a student-athlete advisory committee. It's going to encompass the whole campus, how we operate, how we function financial aid-wise, to recruiting. It's going to help us grow… A lot of manuals to write."
The G-MAC, a two-year-old league which was approved just last month as an active D-II conference by the membership committee [meaning it's full-fledged members will now be eligible for automatic postseason berths], hasn't sponsored football in the past. Cumberland and Georgetown will join Kentucky Wesleyan, Central State and Alderson Broaddus on the gridiron while the league pursues new members for the sport.
"The commissioner would say there are a lot of schools that are very interested," Pavan said. "Their strategic plan, I think, is 8-10 football schools. Once we get to six, we have our league in football, NCAA, and you'll see eight or more."
New football coach Donnie Suber went through a similar transition while on the staff at Benedict College [Columbia, S.C.].
"Recruiting's a little bit…they keep an eye on you a little bit more," Suber said. "It's not that bad. Everything works out. It'll work out for us.
"You have a little bit more scholarships in Division II. You have 32 equivalencies, if the conference allows that. In the NAIA, it's 24, so you do have more money that way. Trying to get kids into school eligible, it's a little bit tougher in NCAA than NAIA."
The move had been talked about on campus at least twice before, in the late 1990s and again shortly after Pavan came to CU in 2009.
Watching all this was longtime baseball coach Woody Hunt, who came to Cumberland as an assistant coach when the school was a junior college in 1977. He became head coach in '82, a year before the school returned to four-year status and began the move from the NJCAA to the NAIA. Hunt has coached men's and women's basketball and served a decade as athletic director. He coached the Bulldogs to NAIA baseball championships in 2004 and '10. The school has produced two individual wrestling national champions and numerous NAIA national tournament teams in many of its sports.
Hunt has also seen longtime rivals make the move to the NCAA. Current D-I members Belmont and Lipscomb were CU rivals in the 1980s and '90s. Christian Brothers [Memphis] moved to D-II in the '90s and Union University [Jackson] did likewise in just the last couple of years.
"I've seen a lot of changes here, and they've all been good," Hunt said after the announcement. "I anticipate this will be a good change for us. The NAIA has been a tremendous organization for us. It's not to look down at the NAIA. It's just the best fit for what we want to do.
"It's going to be a tough three or four years, getting through the process. But when we do get settled in, it will be a good situation."