Concordia University, the Northeast Portland school that already has been making strides athletically and in other ways, has chosen to take its biggest athletic leap.
Concordia is jumping from the NAIA to NCAA Division II. The Cavaliers will become the 11th full-time member of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in 2015-16, joining Western Oregon University as the only Oregon members of the conference.
The move is contingent on approval, expected this summer, by the NCAA D-II membership committee. But Concordia already is making plans for a smooth transition from the NAIA Cascade Collegiate Conference.
"There's a real niche to be had, and we feel that this is a natural move," Concordia athletic director Matt English says. "No question it's a step up, but I think we're prepared for that, and we have a good sense of what it takes and what strides we need to make to compete.
"I think we are prepared to step in and compete with the top half of the GNAC in most sports, and I think all of our programs can be competitive at a national level."
The move to D-II goes beyond athletics, English says, and is in line with Concordia's ongoing strategic plan, now known as Vision 2024.
Part of the strategy is to look at how athletics can help drive Concordia in pursuit of goals in other areas.
"From both a university and athletics perspective, this move to Division II will be good," English says. "Our university has grown, our brand has grown, and athletics can be a front porch for more of that.
"This will help us with student recruitment and will make us much more recognizable. Being Division II positions us very closely, just maybe a half-step behind the University of Portland and Portland State University in the state."
The GNAC offers 16 sports, and Concordia has every one except football.
"We have no plans to add football anytime soon," English says. In terms of facilities, costs and Title IX considerations, "we just aren't prepared to take on 100-plus football players."
The Cavaliers, however, have established, successful programs in nearly every other sport. Their soccer teams and volleyball team are ranked in the top 20 of NAIA, with the women's soccer team rated No. 1 going into tonight's 7 p.m. home match against Evergreen State at Tuominen Yard on the Concordia campus.
GNAC full-time members are Western Oregon, Seattle Pacific, Western Washington, Central Washington, Saint Martin's, Simon Fraser, Northwest Nazarene, Montana State Billings, Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Fairbanks.
In football, the GNAC also includes affiliate members Azusa Pacific, Humboldt State, Dixie State and South Dakota School of Mines. In men's soccer, the two affiliate members are University of Mary and South Dakota.
English says he expects Western Oregon to become Concordia's most natural main rival, "because they are the closest to us."
The major changes and upgrades Concordia will need with the move to D-II, English says, are in some facilities and coaching positions.
The Concordia gymnasium was renovated before the 2011-12 school year, and English says additions and more improvements will be required for the Cavaliers' transition to D-II.
"A complete fitness center is a primary thing to address," he says. "We're already having preliminary discussions about one that would serve the entire campus and maybe a 2,000-seat arena adjacent to and connecting to our current gym. That could be in the very near future, for volleyball, basketball and weight training, and with a treatment center and the exercise science program, which is our fastest-growing major."
Concordia has a nationally recognized throws center off-campus for field events in track and field, but the school does not have a home track. The Cavaliers train at Fernhill Park.
"We'd love to build an indoor track, probably a 300-meter flat track, next to our throws center," English says. "We could host some meets and allow our kids to have a safe and dry place to work out. We could put artificial turf in the middle of the track for soccer, lacrosse, etc."
English says Concordia also would like to find a way to have its softball team compete on campus instead of at Delta Park.
In the GNAC, he notes, many coaches are fulltime, without classroom teaching assignments, "so we will want to move most of our coaches toward that."
Travel also will be different for Concordia teams, with trips to Alaska and Montana for GNAC contests, and possibly other states, such as California, Colorado, Arizona and even Hawaii, for non-league regional games.
"We'll have to increase our recruiting budgets," English says. "I don't know if that means enlarging our footprint of recruiting, but I believe it will help us draw an even better student-athlete, just through the perception of D-II and being affiliated with the NCAA."
Scholarships and athletic aid also will change, although "while in some sports the limit goes up from NAIA to D-II, in some sports, including women's and men's soccer, the number goes down," English says.
One thing that will help financially, he adds, is that the NCAA covers the costs of national postseason travel, whereas Concordia has been spending about $250,000 per year to compete in NAIA postseason events.
English, in his sixth year at Concordia, is a former athletic department member at the University of Oregon. He worked for the Duck Athletic Fund, then became regional director of development and associate director of development and finally interim executive director for the fund. During his time in Eugene, the Duck Fund grew by more than 40 percent to $10,5 million in 2007, and he was involved in the early stages of planning for Matthew Knight Arena.
"I learned a lot of lessons at the U of O and continue to look at (the Ducks) as a model in terms of how they elevated their athletics program and university as a whole," he says. "It's a similar model that we want to follow, but on a smaller level."
English is a Portland native who graduated from Columbia Christian High, majored in business administration at Seattle Pacific and got an MBA from the UO's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.
Concordia has become a force in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, winning the league's All-Sports Trophy every year of English's tenure and claiming 40 CCC titles.
Concordia, a private school that opened in 1905, has about 3,100 undergraduate and graduate students and about 3,500 total students, including those who study only online.
Concordia is a quality institution with a proud history in athletics, and we are extremely excited about its prospects as a full-time member of the GNAC, Brian Rogers, University of Alaska Fairbanks chancellor and chair of the GNAC CEO Board, said in a statement. For some time, conference officials have viewed Concordia as an excellent candidate for Division II and GNAC membership, and we couldnt be more excited about incorporating this outstanding institution into one of the leading conferences in the country.