How’s this for timing?
Come Friday, North Idaho College will make a run at a 15th national wrestling title, as host of the NJCAA championships at the Spokane Convention Center.
And two days before, it’s likely to be decided that wrestling will be the only sport the school will continue to pursue at a national level.
Once again, the Cardinals are grappling with a familiar question: which bowl of alphabet soup?
The National Junior College Athletic Association, NIC’s current home, in which full scholarships can be offered and travel to Utah, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming is routine? Or the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges, the next-door collective of 34 members with more parochial – and less expensive – aspirations?
The other challenger on the mat, as always, being money.
Declining enrollment at NIC – 11 percent this year, an expected 10 percent more on the way – has the school looking at whacking $2.3 million from its budget. Sports and its yearly price tag of more than $1 million, funded largely by student fees, can hardly expect to be exempt from the carnage.
At a Maryland or Missouri, the solution might be to jump to a conference with a better TV contract. The strategy in major college athletics is always to find more money, rather than live within one’s means.
NIC, however, has reached the fork in the road: either redraw the map, or lop off some sports.
Even as NIC athletic director Al Williams initially characterized discussions with the NWAACC as “very preliminary” last week, the school already had made application to join the league at its winter meetings in Vancouver. And on Wednesday, he’s on the agenda to appear before NIC’s Board of Trustees. Citing a projected savings of $120,000 in travel costs and $500,000 in grant-in-aid outlay, he’ll ask for approval “to move forward with planning and implementation to transition into the NWAACC,” where athletic aid is capped at 65 percent of tuition.
Providing the Cardinals get the come-hither from those schools.
“If they say ‘nay,’ we’d have to cut sports,” Williams said in a follow-up conversation, “a minimum one and more than likely three or four.”
Four being nearly half the Cardinals’ offerings.
The school has been through this before, of course. In 2002, baseball and men’s and women’s track and cross country programs were axed, and despite substantial campus opposition, allegiance was re-pledged to the NJCAA and Scenic West Athletic Conference. Caught in the switches were the Cardinals’ soccer teams which had spent five years as affiliate members of the NWAACC. That league wanted an all-sports commitment from NIC; instead, the Cardinals have soldiered on as the only soccer-playing members in the SWAC.
With that in mind, NIC’s pitch to the NWAACC this time is two-phased. It has asked to have soccer, golf and softball admitted for the fall of 2014, with basketball and volleyball joining in 2016 after their scheduling commitment to Scenic West rivals is complete. Wrestling will remain an NJCAA sport, as it isn’t sponsored by the NWAACC.
NWAACC executive director Marco Azurdia said the vote of his membership will be announced Tuesday. Community Colleges of Spokane athletic director Ken Burrus volunteered his.
“I think it makes a lot of sense on both sides,” he said. “I don’t know how they can afford that travel and the scholarships, and for us to have a rivalry with a level playing field I think would be great for both campuses. And to not have to recruit against those scholarships anymore can only be good for our program.”
But even practicality can be a hard sell.
There’s a 50-year investment involved. The Cardinals have their own long-standing rivalries. Letting go of those steamy showdowns against Southern Idaho with everyone cheek-to-cheek in Christianson Gymnasium will hurt. So, too, will the knowledge that they more than held their own. Beyond wrestling’s bounty, women’s basketball and cross country have won national titles. Softball and women’s soccer have been close. Volleyball is a perennial at the tournament. Virtually every team has made Top 25 appearances.
“You can’t get so excited about winning a trophy across the border,” said longtime booster Don Sausser, “when before you had a chance to win the whole thing.”
Nonetheless, Williams said the booster board “voted unanimously to support my recommendation,” pending an NWAACC invitation.
And the fact is, missions evolve. Moving to the NWAACC now doesn’t invalidate what the program achieved under the NJCAA banner. It hurt NIC not a bit to have basketball players from Brazil, wrestlers from Michigan and distance runners from Ireland in its classrooms, and the cachet of national success helped build an identity and attachments in Coeur d’Alene.
Now that the school’s place is well-established, it’s no shame to serve as a community’s college, either.
And the price is right.
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