Inside Colorado Mesa Passing On a Div. I Athletics Jump

Moving up to Division I has its perks. Playing with the "big guys." They're the colleges you see daily on national television. Boosters throwing millions into state-of-the-art facilities for staffers and players.

Plus, that One Shining Moment possibility that lingers in the air every time a school from nowhere plays a ranked opponent. Boise State over Oklahoma. Appalachian State defeating Michigan. Games can define a campus for decades.

"You start looking at wrestling competing against Penn State. Basketball would have to compete against Kansas for a national championship," co-Athletic Director at Colorado Mesa University, Bryan Rooks says. "I think it's exciting...that excitement's real."

Which is why, for a moment, CMU flirted with the possibility of saying goodbye to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and moving up to Division I. In mid-November, The Western Athletic Conference extended invitations to a number of RMAC schools to join their ranks, including the Mavericks. 

"We decided internally to take a look at it," CMU's co-Athletic Director Kris Mort says. "[Foster] asked us to run some numbers and put together a presentation for the Board of Trustees.

"At the end of the day, the real question on the table is, how much money would it cost to make the transition."

Turns out, for a non-profit, the NCAA expects a lot for a school to change its designatation. There's a $1.7 Million application fee to even be considered for Division 1. CMU would be required to pay the RMAC an $100,000 exit penalty, and the WAC $125,000 annually for joining. 

But even those aren't the real expense. 

"We came to a $7-$10 Million increase for the athletic budget," Rooks says. "That included salaries, and obviously scholarships."

Colorado Mesa's current athletic operating budget is $8.1 Million for the 2018-19 school year. A jump to Division 1 would require nearly doubling that wallet, something that would stretch the university thin. Scholarships would also need to increase, a hidden expense that could cost Colorado Mesa hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet WAC minimums. 

"We're a lot of money away," Mort says. "Which means a lot of tuiton dollars away."

In addition to finances, the strain on smaller Colorado Mesa athletics programs would be difficult, if not impossible to overcome. Smaller sports like women's lacrosse, wrestling, and golf would need to travel drastically farther to compete in the Western Athletic Conference. In the athletic department's Division 1 Initial Feasibility report, Mavs officials cited a current average travel time of 5 hours, 22 minutes to different teams in the RMAC. If CMU joined the WAC, that number skyrockets to 11 hours and 45 minutes. 

"[Joining the WAC] would mean increased travel, a completly resigned program," CMU women's lacrosse coach Shanta Loecker says. "Being a lacrosse program in a non-traditional area, I don't know if that would have been a positive."

Colorado Mesa declined the WAC offer in early December. In mid-January, Dixie State (another RMAC school) decided to accept and move to Division 1. The Trailblazers have the added advantage of only housing 16 NCAA sanctioned sports, compared to CMU's 26. While Colorado Mesa would have likely needed to cut programs to reach a sustainable budget, that wasn't necessary at Dixie State. 

"Overall, the general input was we were ready for this jump," Dr.Jason Boothe says, Dixie State's Athletic Director. "We want this jump. We're a growing area, a growing institution, and we want to step up [...] and bring in a different kind of student-athlete."

The Trailblazers will officially move to the WAC in 2020, when the four-year NCAA postseason ban will go into effect. Officials in the athletic department expect their budget will inflate from $5.3 Million to about $12 Million, with a ticket price increase that officials say will be consistent with other WAC schools.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks want to keep focus on winning a team national title in Division II, while also emphasizing the "student" in student-atheltes.

"We really came to the conclusion that student-athletes and the value they bring to a community is real." Rooks says. "Being part of Grand Junction, Colorado as well as a high level athlete at the Division two level is where we're at today."

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