Excerpted from an interview that originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of NCCU Now.
In 201112, North Carolina Central University entered Division I athletic competition as a full member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).
Composed of teams from 13 historically black universities from Delaware to Florida, the MEAC is in the NCAAs Football Championship Subdivision, the second tier of Division I. As NCCUs first year of competition at this higher level draws to a close, Dr. Ingrid Wicker-McCree, the universitys athletics director, talked with NCCU NOW editor Rob Waters about the rewards and challenges of Division I membership, and predicted a bright future for Eagle teams.
Q. How does it help NCCU to be in Division I?
The biggest benefit is that were now aligned with schools that share our academic profile. And it so happens that it is a Division I conference. Our profile with all of our new programs, including our new Ph.D. program, is similar to that of most MEAC schools. Almost all are masters level and Ph.D. level. The geographic base of the MEAC is broader than the CIAA Delaware to Florida so it gives us exposure and an opportunity to recruit students and student-athletes from a much greater recruiting base.
The four-year transition period when we werent in a conference was a difficult time, but it did improve our national visibility. Our teams were playing all over the country often in front of people who didnt previously know about NCCU. West of Texas there are no HBCUs, so we were able to reach out to a population of students, some of whom might like to go to an HBCU but dont have that option in their home states, and show them, Heres a school you might consider.
There are some revenue benefits. Starting next year we can receive academic support funds from the NCAA. Theres conference revenue-sharing from the MEAC basketball tournament and the NCAA tournament. And well be increasing our gate receipts now that were playing more familiar opponents especially in the MEAC, some of our traditional rivals.
Q. Theres also income from guarantee games. Can you explain how they work?
Its normal for FCS schools to compete in guarantee games with major-conference schools. We did it a little in Division II, but now mens and womens basketball each play about five guarantee games a year. Football usually plays one, and over the past three years, baseball and womens volleyball have also received guarantees.
You basically enter a contract with the big-conference institution, and you are guaranteed a specified amount of money to come and compete.
Q. Examples of that would be the football game at Rutgers in September or the mens basketball game at N.C. State in December.
Yes, Rutgers in football. N.C. State and Indiana were examples in mens basketball this year, and Virginia Tech and UNC-Chapel Hill in womens basketball. There are benefits to these games beyond the revenue. Our student-athletes get to travel to new places and play in some amazing venues sometimes on TV. And even though the scores usually might not be what we want, every now and then theres an upset.
Q: We gave N.C. State a good scare.
(laughs) Oh, exactly. They probably will not want to schedule us next year.
Q. What are the costs of moving to Division I?
Heres a snapshot. Five years ago our budget was $2 million. Now its $7.2 million. All of our operational costs have increased, but especially our scholarships. Theyve gone from about $300,000 to more than $2.3 million. And our staff has doubled.
Q. Where does the money come from?
A little more than half comes from the students. They pay an athletics fee $624 for a full-time student this year. Football and basketball gate receipts are also a significant source. Private funds that includes the Eagle Club, individual donations and corporate sponsorships cover 7 or 8 percent of our budget, and our goal is to raise that to 15 percent. Concessions, parking and vendor fees also contribute to our revenue.
Q. How does revenue balance out?
Its becoming more difficult because a Division I program costs significantly more than a Division II program. Many factors affect our revenue. One is enrollment. Under our business plan, we expected a certain level this year, and were actually 1,000 students below that. Gate receipts, particularly from football, have been lower in recent years because our team hasnt done very well, but we expect improvement there.
Im optimistic about next year. We have a new coach, and were marketing that. Our schedule is set, so we can start selling season tickets. And we have big games. Well play a guarantee game at Duke not at home but still here in Durham. Well play North Carolina A&T here. Every year that we play them home, our gate receipts will be higher. The challenge is the year that theyre not here, making sure that our gate receipts meet the projected revenue for the games we have.
Private fundraising is difficult for everyone now, not just for athletics. But weve done well with the resources we have. Were raising more than we have in the past, and well have to put more emphasis in this area.
Q. Lets talk about the student-athletes. How have they been affected? What changes for them?
The biggest change for them is on the academic side. The Division I requirements for eligibility and maintaining a scholarship are much more rigorous than Division II.
And the competition is tougher. We emphasize that the focus needs to be on your academics and your athletics. In Division II, theres more opportunity to participate in campus life. But for the student-athlete in Division I, it is truly business time. You go to class and get your academics done, and you focus on your athletics program. Its much more structured, and it requires you to do more in your off time to improve your academic and athletic skills.
Q. OK, thats the part thats tougher for them. Whats better?
There are more resources for academic support. As I mentioned, we hope to be up to four full-time academic counselors next year. This will enhance our ability to help our student-athletes succeed academically.
Another positive aspect is that our student-athletes get to travel to more places and play in some great venues. Some of these students have never flown before or gone outside of North Carolina. Those are experiences theyll always remember.
Q. How has the recruiting process changed?
Its much more rigorous. It costs more. There are 45 NCAA schools in North Carolina, of which 18 are Division I. Its very competitive to recruit top student-athletes in-state because they have so many choices. This has forced us to go out of state. About 40 percent of our student-athletes are from other states. That means more for tuition, and the cost of recruiting travel is greater. Its tougher on the coaches, because they have to be out much more, and on the phone much more.
The coaches have to deal with the challenges of getting high schools to really consider NCCU. High school coaches and AAU coaches have a big influence in an 11th- and 12th-graders life. If theyre not considering NCCU, theyre not going to encourage students to come here. Our coaches have been trying to make sure that the schools and the coaches in North Carolina know what were doing here and whats going on, so NCCU can become one of those choices.
Q. What have been the biggest challenges of the move to Division I?
If you were to ask the coaches, theyd say recruiting. And they would also say academic issues, making sure they meet the eligibility requirements each year.
Q. Compared with our ACC neighbors, our athletics program runs on a shoestring. What do you wish you had more money for?
Let me say this first I want people to know this because of the expectations. The major-conference schools operate on a level of their own. UNCChapel Hill has an athletics budget of $71 million, and N.C. States is $54 million. Our budget right now is at $7.2 million. The MEAC average is about $8.5 million, and the average for all FCS institutions is $10 million or $11 million. Thats where we are not even at the MEAC average. I think thats important for people to understand. We need to be where the top four teams are in the conference, and those budgets probably average around $9 million.
In planning our move to Division I, our model was Appalachian State a UNC System school that moved to Division I a few years ahead of us. It meant we didnt need to reinvent the wheel. That has helped guide us as to where we want to be.
This year, we awarded full or partial scholarships to 185 of our 290 student-athletes a total of $2.3 million. If I had more money, I would direct it toward providing the maximum number of scholarships for all 14 of our sports. I would apply more to recruiting and academic support. And if there were any left, Id use some for upgrades and renovation of facilities.
Q. Are there lessons for NCCU from the scandals in the football programs at UNC and Ohio State (to name just a couple)? Are there dangers out there that we need to be wary of?
Oh yes. As weve been going through final certification, we have put things in place to prevent some of these issues. Are you ever 100 percent foolproof? No. But these incidents and scandals were happening as we went through certification, so they were on everyones mind when the NCAA team came to our campus. They asked, What do you have in place for training your tutors? Are they aware of NCAA rules?
Chancellor Nelms and I sat on the task force that UNC President Tom Ross convened to talk about academic integrity, compliance and institutional control. We came up with effective practices for each of the 16 UNC institutions with regard to academic support, tutoring, how to make sure your tutors are evaluated effectively, selecting your tutors and establishing best practices for monitoring compliance.
All this has made us more aware and made it easier for us to say to our coaches, You see what happened over there? For example, when we remind our coaches that they are not allowed to ask admissions to give special treatment to a recruit, they understand. They know the rules, and they know the rules exist to protect the students and the coaches too.
Q. Look down the road five years or so. What are the goals? What would be indicators of success?
Our three overarching goals are to graduate our student-athletes, win more than we lose and run a clean program. Those will always be the goals no matter what.
Specifically, we want an 80 percent graduation rate. We want to finish consistently in the top three in the MEAC, and we want to do all we can to make sure that everyone is educated about the rules students, prospective students, coaches, staff, faculty, alumni, our booster club, our sponsors.
To read the complete interview online on NCCU Nows website, go to nccu.edu/formsdocs/proxy.cfm?file_id=1835.