SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - It was a Sunday morning at the Queen City Bakery in downtown Sioux Falls and the athletic director at Augustana University sat down with not many eyes on him. For Josh Morton, that will change in the next two months.
Of all the questions that surface in Sioux Falls these days, the one that is the most intriguing has to do with the Vikings. Will the small, private school get into the Summit League?
Augustana made it known in December of 2018 that Division I athletics will be in its future as part of a campus-wide strategic plan. Not much was heard from the school on the idea since then until Summit commissioner Tom Douple revealed last week that Augustana applied for league membership.
Inside Morton’s office, however, life has been buzzing. The school hired CarrSports Consulting to help put together its strategic plan that is mandatory for a Division I reclassification. CarrSports is the same firm that helped North Dakota State through its Division I transition.
“A lot of people thought they hadn’t heard from Augustana for a long time but that’s because we had our head down truly putting this plan together setting us up for success,” Morton said.
It’s not the first reclassification rodeo for the son of former Bison head football coach Don Morton. A former University of North Dakota quarterback, he was as an assistant athletic director at UND when the Fighting Hawks began a Division I move.
That Augustana plan will be on display when the school will go before Summit League presidents at the league’s annual meeting in May. League presidents will make a site visit. Don’t be fooled by Augustana’s being quiet for the last 14 months. The school appears to be gunning for Summit membership.
“So it’s showing your value,” Morton said. “What can you offer any league? That’s the first step … showing your value.”
Douple questioned Augustana’s size, especially in comparison to the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State. Both are located about an hour away from Sioux Falls. Augustana’s enrollment is about 2,100 students and its endowment is about $90 million, well below most Summit schools.
Morton, however, said that $90 million impacts 2,100 students. He also said the school got a late start on the endowment and has grown “exponentially” since 1991.
“How does that compare if you have 10,000 students?” Morton said. “That endowment better be five times what ours is. … We understand we would come into any league as one of the smallest.”
Enrollment, he said, has grown by 22 percent in the last 10 years. And the subject of Summit affiliation and Division I membership would never happen, he said, if it weren’t for the school’s location. The school booked a prime advertising spot at Sioux Falls' Denny Sanford Premier Center, a large banner that stared at fans at the Summit League men's and women's basketball tournament.
“If you’re asking me if we were in a small town in South Dakota, heck no,” Morton said. “But our location is a gift. Look at the projected growth … people are moving into town that don’t have an allegiance and this town needs a Division I team.”
It’s setting up to be a battle over Sioux Falls between USD, SDSU and Augustana. Last year, the Vikings’ athletic department hired their first assistant athletic director for development. That was Morton’s job as an assistant athletic director at Michigan State before he came to Augustana.
The basketball teams moved to the Sanford Pentagon. Augustana has long had a basketball practice facility. The baseball stadium is all turf. A new track and field complex opened last October. Wrestling and volleyball compete in the Elmen Center on campus.
The soccer field is OK. Morton said the softball stadium will be the next renovation project. Kirkeby-Over Stadium for football is a modern facility with private suites and 7,000 seats. It also has artificial turf.
Ah, football. If Augustana is successful in getting into the Summit, what about football? No decision has been made, whether it be trying to get in the non-scholarship Pioneer League or the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“Nothing can happen (with Division I) until we get a multi-sport invite,” Morton said.
That is where making a Division I move differs from the days when NDSU and South Dakota State did it. The NCAA requires conference membership before a reclassification can begin.
The Bison declared their intent in 2002 with the hope of finding a conference.
A run at the Big Sky Conference fell through. The Mid-Continent Conference, which is now the Summit, thought otherwise and accepted both Dakota schools beginning in 2007.
If Morton needs advice, he has an ally in former NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor, now the athletic director at Kansas State. It was Taylor who guided the Bison through the reclassifying years.
“Gene has been great,” Morton said. “We’ve had phone calls and he always says, ‘You need to call me. You need to call me.’”
And NDSU isn’t the only blueprint on how to do it, either.
“I think the beauty for us is you have a lot of schools to follow,” Morton said. “For us, this is about the next 30 to 40 years, not necessarily about the next five.”