FARGO — Josh Morton has been part of a college athletic program making the move up to NCAA Division I before. This time, it’s with a private school.
Morton is the first-year athletic director at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., which announced Thursday that it will be making the move from Division II athletics to Division I. Morton was an assistant athletic director at the University of North Dakota when it made the move to Division I.
“You can learn a lot from other experiences, no question,” said Morton, the son of former North Dakota State head football coach Don Morton. “But as a private school, we are different. Every school is unique.”
Augustana is expected to move to the Summit League, which includes 12-year member NDSU and first-year member UND. But neither Morton nor Summit League commissioner Tom Douple would confirm that is happening.
“Those are confidential matters right now,” Morton said.
“I have had just casual conversations,” said Douple, who in his 14 years as the Summit League commissioner has always refused to comment on potential new membership. “I haven’t had one conversation with them in any of our meetings. Best of luck to them. It’s always good to see folks who want to improve.”
A school seeking to make a move to Division I faces a four-year transition period, like NDSU and South Dakota State did from 2004 to 2008 when they moved from Division II to the Division I Summit League. But before a school can start to make a formal reclassification, it must be accepted by a conference first.
“We would like to secure an invitation to a conference by December of 2020,” Morton said. “It may take longer, we don’t know.”
“Membership is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Douple, whose Summit League office moved to Sioux Falls this past year.
When NDSU and SDSU were accepted by the Summit League in 2004, the conference was known as the Mid-Continent Conference. It became the Summit League in 2007, the first year NDSU and SDSU could play in the conference, but were ineligible for postseason play. In 2008, NDSU won the Summit League men’s basketball tournament.
Since that time, the Summit League has seen five teams leave with Indiana Purdue-Indianapolis, Oakland (Mich.), Southern Utah, Missouri-Kansas City and Centenary (La.). Four new teams have joined the league with South Dakota, Denver, Omaha and UND. Oral Roberts left the league but has since returned, giving the Summit League nine members.
“An even number like 10 could be good for scheduling purposes,” Douple said. “But you can make it work for any number. We want to make sure any new member is the right fit. That is more important than any number.”
For the Summit League to be awarded an automatic bid for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, it needs a minimum of seven members. Adding Augustana would give the Summit League an even more comfortable cushion in maintaining its minimum-number requirement for not only basketball but for baseball, too.
NDSU athletic director Matt Larsen would not speak specifically about Augustana.
“But in general, our league has had a lot of conversations about expansion and getting to that even number,” Larsen said. “It makes sense for a lot of reasons ... stability, travel partners and additional home games. It’s hard to get home games, especially in basketball. It would make life a lot easier.”
Augustana is a private liberal arts school with 2,100 students. Augustana currently has an athletic budget of $10.3 million. NDSU has a budget of $23.2 million, while SDSU has a budget of $20 million.
“We realize in order to compete, we will have to generate more revenue,” said Morton, who helped raise $22 million while at UND from 2009 to 2012 and $23 million over five years at his last job at Division I Michigan State, which is in the Big Ten Conference. “Being located in Sioux Falls, it helps a lot. It’s a growing community. The economy is strong. And we already have a lot of corporate sponsorships and many more that are untapped.”
Augustana is currently a member of the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, a 16-team league that includes Minnesota State Moorhead. Morton said Augustana will continue competing in the NSIC until it finds a new Division I conference.
MSUM athletic director Doug Peters doesn’t think Augustana’s departure will affect the NSIC.
“One school does not make or break the NSIC,” Peters said. “We are obviously the strongest Division II conference in the country. With Augustana or any school leaving, it won’t change that.
“Obviously, it will change scheduling. But that’s the beauty of being in a larger league. We have some flexibility with scheduling.”
Augustana has had success at the Division II level. The men’s basketball team, coached by former NDSU coach Tom Billeter, won an NCAA Division II championship in 2016. The baseball team won a Division II championship in 2018.
Augustana opened a new on-campus football stadium in 2009. But if Augustana were to join the Summit League, it would have to find a different conference for football. The Summit League sponsors 19 sports, but not football.
“We are committed to football, we just have to find the right league,” Morton said.
Peters said he wishes Augustana the best of luck with its transition.
“I sincerely hope they have the success that they want,” Peters said. “We are in a region where we have seen a lot of schools make the move to Division I and have some success. We’ve had a great seat in the peanut gallery to watch that. And it will be interesting to watch how Augustana navigates that course.”