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Commentary: Time for NAU to join the big boys

James Kelley
By James Kelley
Arizona Daily Wildcat
September 9, 2005
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Tomorrow the Arizona football team will face an in-state rival in a heated matchup sure to divide the state in half.

OK, so maybe "rival" is a bit more than a stretch, "heated" would only be an accurate description of the weather and that part about dividing the state in half is a tad more than mouse manure.

But before Arizona and NAU played in 2002, the last time they played was in 1945. Games in 2003 and 2004 only happened because San Diego State pulled a Dave Chappelle on Arizona and backed out of scheduled games.

The NCAA has the most hierarchical system this side of India, with the Top 25 schools (Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas), then the BCS conference schools, the mid-majors, Division I-AA, D-II and whatever is below that.

NAU is a top dog in the wacky world of Division I-AA football, a place so crazy that they have something called "college football playoffs," but a Division I-AA team just won't be able to compete with a big-time college football team.

The fact is, the Arizona vs. NAU game will be a snoozefest, but it doesn't have to be.

A decision made a few months ago by the NCAA opens the door for the Lumberjacks to move up, like when it moved from NAIA and D-II.

When the NCAA wasn't busy telling American Indians when they should be offended, they decided to lower the standards for potential Division I-A teams, which are now:

  • Sponsor at least 16 sports, with at least six men's and eight women's teams

  • Must play 60 percent of their games against Division I-A teams

  • Must provide 90 percent of the allotted football scholarships (200 overall, including grants-in-aid)

  • Average 15,000 people in attendance per game

    The 15,000 people per game is the most notable requirement, and in what I like to think of as a sign from God, the normal seating capacity of NAU's Walkup Skydome (though it tops out at 15,300). They would have to average a sellout every game, but 15,000 isn't too much to ask.

    The Lumberjacks are at 15 sports now, seven men's and eight women's, so they could easily add a ski team, something they wouldn't need to build a stadium for. The added Division I-A money would likely enable them to meet any scholarship requirements.

    The attendance requirement is tabulated either over two years of actual average attendance or paid attendance in just one year, so the Lumberjacks could satisfy that in their second year in Division I-A.

    Even if they are a little short, a big donor could buy up the rest of the tickets and give them to customers, like how the NFL's Arizona Cardinals are trying to get some decent crowds for their "big" games.

    Moving to Division I-A would enable the Jacks to ditch the Big Sky Conference and join a better one - the Western Athletic Conference is a perfect fit. The WAC is obviously hurting for membership since Louisiana Tech left.

    NAU has a strong athletic program. In 2003-04, the last year Division I-AA teams were considered Division I for the Director's Cup rankings, which evaluate all of a school's programs, the Lumberjacks were ranked 69 out of 278 teams.

    That ranking put the Jacks ahead of West Virginia, Tulane, Cal-State Fullerton, Virginia Tech, Air Force, Navy, St. John's, Rice, Pitt, Colorado State, Hawaii, Syracuse, Fresno State, DePaul, Louisville and plenty more.

    In the most recent rankings, NAU finished 24th in men's cross country and 21st in women's track and field, nine spots ahead of Arizona.

    The Lumberjacks are no slouch on the gridiron, where a move up would have the most impact. (By the way, Mike Shanahan, Andy Reid, Bill Callahan and Marty Mornhinweg were all coaches for NAU before they found success in the NFL.)

    NAU is hurting for attention, and moving to Division I-A would be much more effective than writing checks for stupid-looking logos.

    According to The Arizona Republic, NAU spent $320,000 on their new school logo and $20,000 on their new athletic logo for this year.

    In case you haven't seen it yet, the new university logo is an odd-looking navy and puke green combination, with a mountain, Christmas tree, snowflake and leaf thing. The sports logo looks pretty much the same as the old one. Nice job.

    NAU will likely always be a directional school, like ASU is doomed to be the "state" school in Arizona. But playing Fresno State and Hawaii is a lot better than playing Weber State.

    If NAU were to move up, it would help out the entire state. In addition to giving Arizona's third state university much-needed exposure, it would be a boost to the Arizona and ASU football teams.

    Who knows? Maybe someday they could restore that great rivalry of the '30s and '40s. Wouldn't you like to see Arizona and NAU battle for a cactus/Christmas tree trophy?

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