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ID-ing D-I interest

Gene Taylor, North Dakota State's athletic director, is diplomatic when explaining where the school stands on making the leap from Division II to the big time of Division I college athletics.

Gene Taylor, North Dakota State's athletic director, is diplomatic when explaining where the school stands on making the leap from Division II to the big time of Division I college athletics.

Taylor makes it known that the university hasn't made a decision whether to switch.

Yet, he's the university's No. 1 pitchman for telling people why the move to D-I could make sense.

Taylor says he's trying to do that without seeming like "we're pushing it down their throats ..."

"But we want them to understand it as much as they can."

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Officially, NDSU is now doing a "market assessment," which is the second phase of the decision-making process. It is expected to measure the potential level of campus and community support of Division I athletics.

The assessment comes following January's Phase I finding by consultants that the university is a legitimate Division I candidate.

Before the end of May, NDSU, with Taylor as the point man, is to check the collective pulse of the those with fairly close ties to NDSU to see if they support the possibilities of Bison sports going D-I.

There is an urgency for NDSU to move fast on the matter. The NCAA Division I Management Council is expected to release its revised requirements for Division I membership at its meeting in April.

NDSU is hoping Division I lightens up on its probationary periods -- 13 years for men's basketball and five years for other sports.

Plus, the new Division I guidelines may show NDSU is better off than some schools already in Division I.

For instance, some schools may not meet minimum standards for football attendance.

A report issued in January by the NCAA couldn't come at a better time for the university.

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It showed that if NDSU was in Division I-AA football last season, it would have ranked 19th in the nation in attendance with an average of 12,115 per game. And that was without a marquee matchup with the University of Maine, which was canceled because of the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Bison would have been second in the Big Sky Conference behind national 1-AA champion Montana, which averaged 18,899 fans.

And NDSU's enrollment of 10,064 students is above the 2001-02 Division I average of 9,224.

Financially, the report shows NDSU's $5.1 million budget is slightly below the Division I average of $7 million. But it is still in the ballpark.

"People need to hear these things many, many times," said Kathy Borge, a Fargo media consultant.

If NDSU decides to go Division I, it will probably be a tough sell, at least initially.

But Borge and two other Fargo business people who also aren't affiliated with NDSU -- insurance representative Rick Burggraf and United Way president Scott Crane -- agree it can be done.

It just won't happen overnight.

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"In my business, it's like a big estate case," Burggraf said. "The process is long. You have to build trust and you have to build relationships."

The relationship is a union between NDSU and Division I. To many fans, it will be like a wedding between partners who barely know each other. Change is not something Bison fans have experienced.

"You're getting people out of their comfort zone," Borge said. "It makes them uncomfortable. But that doesn't mean moving up to the next level is a bad idea."

The issue was brought up at a Kiwanis meeting in Fargo last month. Following discussion, a straw poll was taken to the question: Are you in favor of NDSU going Division I?

Of the approximate 80 members in attendance, none raised a hand.

Granted, NDSU doesn't need total public approval to make the leap. The North Dakota Board of Higher Education said it will leave the matter up to NDSU.

The final decision rests with school president Joseph Chapman. But it wouldn't hurt to have a majority of fans on board.

"I don't think it's a hard product to sell," Crane said. "This community is very supportive of NDSU. ... It's not rocket science. It's a matter of getting the right people to ask the right questions."

Crane said selling the services provided by the United Way and selling the prospects of Division I are similar in one respect: They are not one-dimensional products.

"Two things come to mind," Crane said. "Who are you going to sell to? Then you have to make your case."

NDSU's case is currently being built by Chapman's challenge to all university departments to find the next level. Borge said the school should figure out how Division I will affect each of its constituent groups.

"What is the main message?" she said. "Image isn't everything, but it's pretty close. To ask these questions, I think you need to walk in the shoes of the people being affected by it."

Taylor appears to be doing just that. He's spoken at numerous clubs. He's been almost immediately accessible to media organizations requesting his views on Division I.

The market assessment will survey people with an interest in Bison athletics. They include season ticket holders, coaches, athletic staff, student body members, corporate sponsors and faculty.

"It's not a vote," Taylor said. "If people who support us say we can't go to the next level, then it may be difficult to make a move."

The assessment will target the general public later. Other factors -- like a large population of University of North Dakota graduates in Cass County -- could factor in.

UND has said it is opposed to moving up a division.

It's all part of the process of buying into a new product.

"Selling isn't talent," Burggraf said. "Is this something they want? It can be done, it will be done. But the process has to be right. If you rush it and it falls, you will set it back."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack at (701) 241-5546

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