In 1960, the year before Rolly Williams arrived as then-North Idaho Junior College basketball coach and athletic director, the basketball team competed in the Coeur d’Alene city league.
His team didn’t have a schedule and didn’t belong to a conference. Williams swept floors, washed towels, called plays and constructed the basketball program while spurring the addition of other sports at the school.
Under Williams, North Idaho College (the name changed in 1971) has evolved into a basketball power, competing in the prestigious Scenic West Athletic Conference.
“This college has grown and grown and grown,” Williams said. “There’s been a lot of progress here and I’d like to think name recognition (of NIC via athletics) has been part of that. We’re well respected throughout the Northwest.
“We should apologize for that?”
NIC’s athletic department is facing heavy scrutiny these days for its association with the SWAC, which stretches into southern Utah and western Colorado. Questions concerning athletic department funding were raised at a Wednesday budget meeting.
Williams, who stepped down as athletic director earlier this year, acknowledges it takes considerable money to travel and compete in the SWAC.
He says the costs are necessary to offer the best sports programs possible and be a contributor to the diversity of a college.
NIC was independent without conference affiliation - during Williams’ first few years. In 1963, the school joined the National Junior College Athletic Association.
NIC has belonged to the NJCAA Region 18 since 1968, when it was formed following a realignment. NIC competed in the Eastern Division, primarily against College of Southern Idaho (Twin Falls), Ricks (Rexburg) and Treasure Valley (Ontario, Ore.). A Western Division consisted of Washington and Oregon schools.
In the mid-1980s, most of the Oregon and Washington schools decided to drop NJCAA affiliation, leaving NIC to compete for one year in a five-team league.
By 1986, an NJCAA realignment brought about the current Region 18, which includes six schools from Utah and Colorado joining Southern Idaho, Ricks, Treasure Valley and NIC. The Scenic West name was adopted in 1990.
“At the time, I remember thinking we had a good program and the (development of the SWAC) was good for our young men and women,” said Barry Schuler, NIC president from 1968-86.
Williams said remaining in the Region 18 and eventually the SWAC kept NIC on equal footing with Southern Idaho and Ricks, continuing long-standing rivalries.
SWAC schools have won national championships in several sports. NIC has qualified for numerous national tournaments in men’s and women’s basketball and the Cardinals’ wrestling program has produced a string of national championships.
“People are striving to get to where we are,” Williams said. “It’s hard to envision anyone saying, ‘Let’s go and work toward achieving mediocrity.’ I mean, people in business wouldn’t do that.”
Williams has long been criticized for recruiting foreign players and not focusing on area athletes.
He defends those practices by saying he recruits the players necessary to be competitive in a tough conference.
Added Schuler: “It was neat for our young people to associate with (foreign athletes) culturally and educationally.”
Williams said the issue goes far beyond his personal attachment to the sports program.
“I can remember what NIC was like before we got a program started here. A lot of people in Coeur d’Alene didn’t even know where NIC was.”