SEATTLE — Since dropping from Division I athletics, Seattle University has spent the better part of three decades trying to better itself as an academic institution.
Now, by moving to Division I athletics, the Jesuit school on Seattle’s Capitol Hill hopes that sports can make sure people around the country notice the improvements.
“The main reason for the move is that Seattle University simply wants to bring its athletic program to the same level of quality as the rest of our university,” said SU president Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J. “What a D-I program can be is a great window onto a university for a wider public to know what we’re about. We’re a great university, but we’re not as well known as we should be.”
Athletics, men’s basketball in particular, have helped put a number of private colleges on the map. Take Gonzaga, for example, a school that is now known nationally because of their recent success in the NCAA tournament. Since dropping from the D-I ranks, Seattle University has become something of an unknown—even locally to some.
“I didn’t even know there was a university here until they started recruiting me,” said senior forward Leigh Swanson.
Swanson, who went to high school at Mountlake Terrace—about a 25 minute drive from SU’s campus—said he knew a bit of Seattle U’s past basketball history, but knew little at all about the school itself, including it’s location.
“You can have a great school, but if you have sort of a regional campus and no one really knows about you, it’s hard to get that national acclaim,” said athletic director Bill Hogan.
Seattle University used to be in the national spotlight, and battled the University of Washington for college basketball supremacy in the city. But eventually, mostly because of academic concerns, the school decided to leave Division I athletics in 1980.
“Essentially the decision was that Seattle University needed to invest more into the fundamentals of salaries for faculty, facilities, remodeling campus buildings, and student financial aid,” said Sundborg, who has been the school’s president since 1997.
But now, Sundborg says, times have changed. The school has nearly doubled in size, and now has 7,600 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs. The university’s endowment is significantly larger, and approximately 1,900 students now live on campus, up from 900 when Sundborg came to Seattle University.
“It’s just a very, very different university, so now it makes sense to make the move to Division I, whereas in 1980 it made sense for the university to do what it did then,” he said.
The process of returning to D-I began in 2006 when the school did an athletic alignment study. At the conclusion of the 2006-2007 school year, the board of trustees gave clearance to the school to apply to the NCAA to move to Division I status. Last year was an NCAA exploratory year, and in July Seattle U received the go-ahead to move into Division I.
The Redhawks are in the first of a four-year transition period, and teams this year play a mixed schedule that includes some Division I opponents. Starting next year the teams will be in full compliance with Division I standards, though they won’t be eligible for NCAA Tournament play until the 2012-2013 school year. The exceptions to that wait time are men’s and women’s soccer, which have been fast tracked, meaning they are tournament eligible starting in the fall of 2010.
Of course a move back to Division I won’t do much for the school’s notoriety if teams don’t succeed, but Sundborg and Hogan are confident they will do just that.
“It’s going to take a few years to get up to snuff, but I tell you, if you look back at Seattle U’s history, any sport that we tried to win in at any level, we were top 20,” said Hogan, who previously served as the athletic director at the University of San Francisco, a Division I Jesuit college. “We have what I call outrageous potential.”
And while the school wants to win and gain notoriety for athletics, Sundborg says they plan on doing it the right way.
“We have to show our current students and our faculty that Seattle University is able to move to Division I within our identity as a Jesuit Catholic University with an emphasis on academics and a commitment to service,” he said. “That’s the phrase I like to use: D-I within our identity. And that takes a lot of oversight and institutional control.”
Part of the move to Division I includes adding teams in baseball, men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s golf.
Like baseball, which starts next school year, basketball will also play off campus after this year. The men’s team hosts one game at KeyArena this year, a Jan. 1 game against Loyola Marymount, and starting next year that will be the Redhawks normal home.
While a smaller, on-campus arena might ideal, both Hogan and Sundborg are happy to call a long-time NBA arena home.
“In another seven to 10 years it might be functional for us to have an on-campus arena,” said Hogan. “But right now we’re adopting the KeyArena, that’s our home and it’s one we’re excited about.”
Another big question for Seattle U as it transition’s to D-I is just who the Redhawks will play. Because a new Division I team is unattractive to conferences worried about their member teams’ ratings percentage index, a number that helps determine who gets into postseason tournaments, Seattle U is currently an independent.
The most logical fit for the Redhawks would be the West Coast Conference, which is made up of schools similar to Seattle U, but the WCC likely won’t let SU in until it proves it can win. The Western Athletic Conference is another that Seattle U might consider.
Wherever the Redhawks end up, Sundborg says D-I athletics will be a natural fit for Seattle U.
“I’m sure that in five or six years for now, we’ll see this as an integral part of what Seattle U is,” he said. “We’ll find it hard to believe we weren’t Division I all along.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.