UTD bolsters sports identity with Division II move, $30 mil facility upgrade

Rainier Pederson | Mercury Staff

UTD is set to transition to Division II sports, eyeing a July 2024 National Collegiate Athletic Association approval after a coveted invite from the Lone Star Conference.

The invitation to the LSC welcomes new opportunities for increased competition and sports scholarships for student athletes – something they were not eligible for under Division III. All 15 of men and women’s sports will transition to the LSC upon submission of the Division II application by February 2024. The NCAA will require a three-year provisionary period which will allow UTD Athletics time to hire specialized staff and implement the scholarship component before they compete for NCAA national titles. The shift to Division II comes in tandem with UTD’s $23 million investment in a track and field complex — set to break ground next summer — and the Athletics rebranding that’s set to unveil this October, all bolstering UTD’s sports presence.

“The support has been amazing,” Director of Athletics Angela Marin said. “Our alumni are ecstatic, and I have heard from my colleagues across campus and faculty and staff members. And just to see the campus already embracing this and we haven’t done anything yet is so exciting. There’s so much to look forward to right now, and I really hope that the student body gets behind this.”

Marin said the university has been in discussion about joining Division II since 2018, and the push was put into effect after several schools left the American Southwestern Conference — the athletics conference UTD is in — earlier this summer. According to the NCAA Division III Manual, a league must have a minimum of seven active teams in order to remain viable for NCAA conference competitions, and the university projects that the ASC will fall underneath that limit over the next year.

After considering other DIII options and a tepid offer from a Division I conference, the university ultimately selected the LSC for its high level of competition and geographical proximity, as 13 of the 17 schools in the conference are located in Texas. LSC schools have hosted 77 national championships in the last 40 years, predominately in women’s basketball and volleyball. Just this past year, the LSC took home four NCAA national championship titles; in contrast, UTD has not claimed any NCAA championship titles under its 25 years in ASC.

“It’s like the stars aligned,” Marin said. “Their footprint is in Texas. When you look at missed class time, when you look at travel, when you look at pulling our students away from their academics, we want to be very intentional about finding a league that is majority Texas … But they’re also in line with what we believe — our mission and values — with their academic success, with their high competitive nature, their community service, and their initiatives. To have a conference that is that strong across the board and will bring that type of competitiveness with these different schools on our campus is exciting. You’re going to see that level of competition every night at one of our athletic events.”

The shift to the LSC also means that UTD will be the largest university in Division II while holding the highest academic standing of all schools in the LSC, surpassing former ASC rivals UT Tyler and Sul Ross State.

“We have roughly a 90% graduation rate in athletics, and that’s something that we are going to protect through this process,” Marin said. “That’s at the core of who we are. At the core value of what we do is we graduate our kids. And that does not change with this transition. That will always be a high priority for us.”

Gene Fitch, vice president of Student Affairs, said funding for the DII transition will come from unrestricted funds: grants or donations that President Richard Benson chooses how to allocate. Benson estimates that the transition will cost an additional $3 million annually for scholarships, staff hiring, and facility upgrades, which is around what the Athletics budget is right now.

“We’re not touching academic money,” Fitch said. “None of that is being impacted, and I don’t want our students to think that something’s being taken away from them.”

The added $3 million in Athletics funding will contribute towards hiring additional coaches for each team and support staff for strength and condition, athletic training, and academic support. Marin said only a set number of scholarships will be given out each academic year. For example, there are around 60 members on the baseball team, and nine of those positions would be eligible for scholarships.

“So we’re not talking about significant scholarship money here, and that nine is regulated by the NCAA,” Marin said. “Some students aren’t going to be on scholarship. It’ll be up to our coaches’ discretion on which student athletes earn scholarships. It’s something you earn, it’s not automatic.”

Other changes between Division II and III include the timeline for playing sports. Division III rules dictate school sports may only be in session for 19 weeks out of the year. Marin said the Division II space will allow for coaches and staff to be with athletes throughout the full year, which will mean more competitions but also more opportunities for team connections.

“Recruiting could change a little bit too because now we’re looking at international recruiting,” Marin said. “When you look at Division II, for instance tennis and soccer, those become more of an international student base.”

Nothing in terms of conference play will change over the next year; UTD will still play for an ASC championship unless another school withdraws. After that, the university will be eligible to play for LSC conference championships and then NCAA national championships after the provisional period concludes.

“I hope that in the areas of the big things that nothing’s changed,” Marin said. “I hope we’re still as successful as we are. I hope that we still have that academic success that we have. We’re going to keep that up. Our level of competitiveness is still going to be high. The biggest change will be our footprint on this campus. You’re going to see a state-of-the-art track and upgraded fields. Our department’s going to take up a larger footprint ’cause we’ll have more people in it. We’re very proud of what we do and we’re proud to represent this institution. So I really hope the students come out and support us throughout this transition, because it’s a very exciting time.”

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