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Brad Rock: Westminster shows even small schools are in realignment mode

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27 2014 2:10 p.m. MST

Allie Eastman dribbles around her defender. Westminster defeated Falukner on Friday to reach the quarterfinals of the NAIA DI Women's Basketball National Championship.

Frankfort Convention Center

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SALT LAKE CITY — Westminster College isn’t dominating the talk radio shows or blowing up on Twitter. There are no Page 1 stories or endless TV updates, either.

There’s not even a $32 million football facility, like the one at Utah.

In fact, there’s no football whatsoever.

Still, conference realignment continues, even at small schools like Westminster. If all goes correctly, the Griffins will be moving from the NAIA’s Frontier Conference to the NCAA’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in 2015.

Isn’t this where they left off?

When it comes to sports, Westminster has been in breakup-to-makeup mode for a long time. It joined the RMAC in 1967 and competed until 1979, when budget issues shuttered the school’s athletic program. Later sports returned in increments. But time and cash flow wait for nobody. So in light of financial, academic and geographical considerations, the college has been invited to rejoin the RMAC. If its application for NCAA Division II status is approved in July, there will be no more bus trips to Butte and Dillon.

From here on, it’s mostly an all-Colorado proposition. Of this year’s RMAC basketball alignment, 10 of 14 schools are from the Centennial State.

“In a nutshell, our decision was, one, opportunity and two, how it will benefit the institution and our students — the overall impact in visibility for the institution and the impact on the student experience,” says Shay Wyatt, the school’s athletics director.

Even for brick-and-ivy private schools like Westminster, economics intervene. Boy do they intervene. The school had football in 1919 but dropped it in 1942, added it in 1948, dropped it in 1961, added it in 1965 and dropped it — along with all other sports — in 1979.

Westminster put a toe back in the water in 1984, adding men’s soccer. Women’s volleyball followed in 1995 and basketball for both men and women was reinstated in 1999.

Westminster was back in the sports business.

In joining the Frontier Conference in the 1960s, the Griffins — then known as the Parsons — had a cozy fit. All were small schools in the Midwest/West. That may seem an obvious alignment, but it wasn’t something the school could take for granted. Utah Valley used to play in a conference that stretched to New Jersey.

Compared to that, getting to Havre, Mont., was no problem.

Yet playing in the NAIA has disadvantages. Outside the relentless reach of the NCAA, its playoffs are less visible and lucrative, and there are only about one-fourth as many schools nationwide. Even lower division NCAA schools get more exposure.

In moving to Division II, Westminster is taking a step up, though not necessarily as big as the steps Utah took — financially and competitively — when switching conferences. NAIA teams have traditionally been as good or better than Division III, mainly because D-III schools don’t provide scholarships. Also, because of geographic proximity, Westminster decided leap-frogging to D-II was best.

While Westminster will find more depth in the RMAC than the Frontier Conference, the talent gap might not be that much.

“The grind of the season and competing against a high level of talent, week in and week out, will be our challenge,” Wyatt says. “You better have good depth and quality of student-athletes to compete at that level.”

Is there an echo in the room?

That sounds a lot like Utah’s mantra.

“We just tend to deal with fewer zeroes,” Wyatt says.

Instead of a $32 million football center, or a $36 million basketball facility, the Griffins might have a $3,500 or $35,000 upgrade.

Competing immediately in the RMAC shouldn’t be impossible. Men’s basketball has been in the NAIA National Tournament a dozen times, including a run of 10 straight years. Women’s basketball has been there the last seven seasons. The Griffins have also made the NAIA postseason field in golf, soccer and volleyball and won affiliated national titles in women’s skiing and snowboarding and men’s lacrosse.

“Down the road,” Wyatt says, “we’d like to add a few sports.”

Don’t count on football being among them.

“I get that question a lot,” Wyatt says. “At this time we’re not considering football. The RMAC is not requiring us to add any sports.”

Six of 14 teams in this year’s RMAC were there when Westminster joined the first time.

The Griffins now must wait to see if the NCAA approves their application. If so, they’ll be assimilated into a conference they once knew.

It should be quite the homecoming.

Never mind the furniture has been rearranged.

Email: rock@desnews.com; Twitter: @therockmonster; Blog: Rockmonster Unplugged

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