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Analysis: Thomas More's Move to NCAA Division II

Dan Weber writes a sports column for The River City News. Contact him at dweber3440@aol.com.

Everywhere you look in college sports these days, the biggest of the big-name programs are working hard to find the right home. Texas and Oklahoma made big news a couple of weeks back when they surprised the Big 12 Conference with their intention to leave the schools’ historic and natural geographic home as soon as they can.

They’ll be joining the Southeastern Conference, they said, helping the rich – and themselves - become even richer.

Then this week, the 41 schools in three other Power Five conferences – the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 – announced that they would band together in a coast-to-coast alliance to schedule, market and – unstated but understood - vote as a bloc to protect their interests (read: millions of dollars in TV money) and keep the big, bad SEC from taking over the world of college football.

But don't think all these attempts to find the right home are just for the big bucks or the big boys.

Nope. Right here in Crestview Hills, Thomas More has been looking to find the right home for an athletic program that could not be more important to the private Catholic university.

"I think there’s a niche here for Division II," Athletic Director Terry Connor was saying this week in his office in the Convocation Center named for his father, Jim Connor, the legendary high school coach and TMU coach and AD who preceded him.

That’s the NCAA Division II, as the Saints would be moving on from the traditionally smaller school NAIA.

This isn't a trivial thing for a school like TMU to make sure it gets athletics right – even without the big bucks. Of its 1,300 or so undergrads, about 700 of them are involved in sports in one way or another, on one of the 28 teams or with the band and cheerleaders.

Just for some context, the University of Southern California program I've been involved with the last 19 years, sponsors 21 sports - and that's with an annual athletic budget upwards of $120 million.

Just an educated guess here, but Thomas More and the other 13 programs in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference that TMU plans to head to - and the dozen in the NAIA Mid-South Conference it's departing from - don't spend that kind of money all together.

If you're keeping score at home, TMU was an NAIA school way back in its KIAC (Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) and Villa Madonna days in the 1950s and ‘60s, then in 1990 moved to the NCAA Division III (no athletic scholarships) where it had great success in women’s basketball with a pair of national championships before moving on recently to the NAIA (some scholarships) and the Mid-South Conference.

When it completes the transition to the NCAA’s Division II Great Midwest Athletic Conference TMU will have comparable scholarships (although instead of 24 in football, for example, they can give 36) which can be divided up to take care of more than that number of athletes. They will also be able to award 10 in basketball, nine in baseball, and 9.9 in softball, for example.

And instead of a conference that looks south to small-town Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia, the Saints will be in a much more Midwestern place with all private schools in a number of metropolitan areas in Ohio and Michigan, although with one each in Kentucky (Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro) and Tennessee (Nashville’s Trevecca Nazarene).

That puts Thomas More right in the middle of things geographically and enrollment-wise with half the Great Midwest above TMU in student numbers, half below.

“We fit right in the middle of the measuring sticks,” Connor says of the conference’s feasibility study. The NCAA will also do a study itself in terms of facilities, personnel, and programs. “We just want to be sure we have all our ducks in a row, that it’s a great fit for us.” 

And while TMU says goodbye to the likes of in-state rivals like national powerhouse Lindsey-Wilson, Georgetown, Campbellsville, Pikeville, and the University of the Cumberlands, it will be joining Cleveland/Canton-area schools Walsh, Malone, Lake Erie, and Ursuline in Ohio along with Ohio Dominican in Columbus as well as four other Ohio schools - Cedarville, Tiffin, Ashland, and Findlay along with Michigan's Hillsdale and joining next year, Northwood.

The eight schools in the new conference offering football will give TMU a nearly complete schedule, always a consideration.

And as much as Northern Kentuckians understand that we're the folks on the south side of the Ohio, when push comes to shove, we probably look more to Ohio than we do southward. And for outsiders looking this way, a Northern Kentucky school is really a Greater Cincinnati school.

Wikipedia describes the Great Midwest as covering the "Great Lakes and East South Central." For the Mid-South, it's "the Southern United States and Ohio." And with four small-town Tennessee schools (Bethel in McKenzie, Tennessee Southern in Pulaski, Cumberland in Lebanon, and Freed-Hardman in Henderson), that's pretty much the case.

There's also Life University in Marietta, Ga., which is departing after this year, and Shawnee State just across the Ohio River in Portsmouth.

“The Mid-South has been good to us,” Connor says. "The relationship has been nothing but positive. But the NCAA is a step up.”

There will be changes. The NCAA, for example, does not sponsor sports the NAIA does like bowling and archery. But thanks to the $800 million the NCAA gets for its March Madness Division I basketball tournament every year from CBS, it can underwrite tournament travel expenses in all other sports, something the NAIA can’t and puts on the schools.

But there are challenges and nothing in college sports is certain these days with so much change happening and the NCAA’s bureaucracy not really able or willing to stay ahead of the curve.

With its slow reaction to the Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) developments, the NCAA forced the courts to take charge of the issue of athletes making money off their name in college. And its inability to discipline North Carolina for more than two decades of phony courses benefiting thousands of athletes or Baylor, for its failure to respond to serious charges of sexual abuse in its football program, has the NCAA’s future as a national organization more than a little bit up in the air in a number of areas.

Not that anyone has to tell Thomas More about the vagaries of the NCAA as an enforcement body after the organization forced TMU to vacate the first of its three national titles (in 2015) in women’s basketball for a questionable “failure to monitor” violation. That still has the TMU folks shaking their heads at how that went down although the Saints followed up with championships in 2016 and 2019.

But as a home for conferences and championships for a Northern Kentucky school approaching its centennial in September that we all knew for so long as “TMC,” it’s still the place to be.

Dan Weber