The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), based out of Kansas City, Missouri, is doing just fine even if it’s going through a bit of a crossroads.
Formed in 1937 and host to 25 national championship series, the organization has seen its identity remain intact and expand even if its membership has done the opposite.
A slow drain of some of its more prominent members – Azusa Pacific, Lubbock Christian, Westminster College, Southern Nazarene and many others – over the decade to the rival NCAA has not forced the NAIA to sell out.
It is still the home for small, private institutions that put the athlete above athletics and the student and person before winning.
“I feel great, because over the last four, five years we have really carved out our niche as a character driven association,” said Jim Carr, president and chief executive officer of the NAIA. “The members that are with us have bought into that. We have had some defections in membership and that’s always a cause for concern. But if you polled our members right now, they would feel as good about the association as they have in a long time.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges and we are working hard on those. We feel pretty good about it.”
Some locals who have a vested interest in the NAIA would agree.
“I have always felt that the NAIA has a solid niche,” University of Saint Mary head football coach Jay Osborne said. “These schools generally do not fit in D2 or D3.
“Geographically, the NAIA excels in the Midwest. I believe the NAIA is helping schools and student-athletes gain affordable and profitable education. Keeping the doors open at a school with less than 1,500 enrolled is not easy.”
It’s about character
The NAIA wants to focus on the character and spirit of the athlete and for its schools to embrace that mission statement.
“What I try to point out is that we don’t own ‘character’ either,” Carr said. “There are good things going on at the NCAA and NJCAA and other places. We just focus in on that are coaches and administrators focus on life after college athletics. So we have training for our coaches and athletes so they use athletics for more teachable moments.
“Coaches are in the business because they like the competition and they like to win and we don’t fault anyone for that, but we’ve seen NAIA programs where they are building their young people into productive citizens over winning. It puts a different twist on the whole student-athlete concept … the idea of the whole person. We have the academic side and the athletic side, but building character is just as important as a component as the first two.”
The lack of temptation and the lure of big money at the higher level is missing at smaller schools and so they may not have that need to win at all costs mentality.
“We are here for a different purpose and a different reason,” Carr said. “Maybe it’s a little bit easier because there isn’t that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Scott Crawford, commissioner for the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC), sees a lot of positives coming out of the NAIA as of late.
“I think we refined our message over the last three to five years and strengthening our membership,” Crawford said. “An outsider would see that our numbers have fallen below 300 but are now steadily climbing back. We are a healthy, vibrant organization. I am very good with our current state of affairs and I appreciate what Jim and others at the national office are doing to revitalize NAIA.
“I am not aware of any other social organization where student-athletes can be taken care of and can have a great bonded relationship with their coach and their administrators than in the NAIA. We are ethical, we provide an extremely caring environment and we are taking care of their needs. It’s a great experience for them to compete at the small college level. Come to the NAIA and you know you will cared about and aren’t just a number.”
Not everyone is sold on the NAIA’s message nor how it serves up the big money – alleged or not – and so some have left for greener NCAA pastures over the last decade as about three to four dozen have left.
It’s Carr’ hope to get membership back up to 275 by 2020.
“How do we make sure to value our current members so they stay and what is it that can differentiate us from D2 to D3 to get some of those members, who used to be with us, to come back?” Carr said. “Poaching was a term that used to be out there when I first started and NCAA D2 took the gloves off about seven or eight years ago – not necessarily the national office but conference by conference. The Frontier is getting hit up by conferences on the West Coast often.
“What they are promising is that their championship (travel) gets reimbursed. We reimburse some, but nowhere near the extent that NCAA is. The other things they are selling and I don’t think are true are, ‘If you come over here you’ll be able to raise more money at the institutional level and get more exposure. In my mind, those things come along with winning, how you run your program, how you run your institution. They are promising those things, but places like William Jewell are spending twice as much money and enrollment is going down and there is no evidence that they are getting more exposure.”
Attempts to reach William Jewell officials were unsuccessful.
“What William Jewell is finding out to compete, you need to bulk up your budget to recruit more actively,” Carr said.
It costs money to make such a move to the NCAA. There is a need for more administrators, including compliance officers and a senior women’s administrator as well as having an athletic director that does not coach.
Costs for travel expand mightily as many conferences are composed of teams in three, four, five or more states while the NAIA usually sees more of a regional connection in league play.
“Another part of your decision is what conference to join,” Carr said. “When we go out to recruit a new member, they aren’t going to come in to the NAIA as an independent. So we have to partner them with the KCAC or the Heart of America for example. We are much more in sync with our conferences now and we also have a lot more data. If you come back to the NAIA or come in for the first time, you could spend half the dollars as you do in D2.”
Morningside College in Iowa came back from NCAA Division II and has enjoyed success on all levels while Presentation College returned to the NAIA after a stint in NCAA Division III.
“It’s not as many (returning schools) as we like, but there are a handful of these case studies,” Carr said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Come to the NAIA and all these great things will happen.’ We’re pushing the ball up the hill because of the NCAA brand.
“We’re trying to be much more active and setting it up as basically a sales organization. We are identifying a pool of about 50-60 schools that look like NAIA schools. We had a bigger number and started to narrow it down from there. We’re still sending them newsletters and where (D2 schools meet) if I can get an audience with them.”
University of Saint Mary women’s basketball coach Bruce Erickson believes there will always be a need for the NAIA, but is worried about the financial effects on the athletes.
“There’s a big need for the NAIA level because there are so many kids looking for a place to go,” Erickson said. “On the reverse side, it’s hard for a lot of schools to keep their doors open. Kids can’t afford to cover (a lot of the financial aspects of NAIA schools). I hope it stays strong, and I wish they could make it where each school could make a little more money. We’re in a day and age where the dollar runs everything. Everyone is looking for a greener pasture somewhere. The NAIA has a lot of good things for a lot kids that need a good education and to be taken care of.”
Many smaller NCAA schools have invested the money because it isn’t coming in from the big television deals the Division I schools enjoy. They do, however, get money from the basketball deals with many networks and so both Division II and III schools get a leg up on the NAIA with some handy $30-40 million in revenue going to each level of play. Much of it goes toward national tournament reimbursements.
“The NAIA is a great organization that provides a good fit for many small colleges,” Saint Mary athletic director Rob Miller said. “I think schools are choosing to leave the NAIA for different reasons. Many of the coaches that work at schools that have transitioned to NCAA wish to go back to the NAIA. They like the flexibility that the NAIA provides. I think it is difficult to retain each member school but the possibility of a school returning to the NAIA is always an option. Just not likely due to the difficulty of switching in the first place.”
Carr admits that he still has pragmatic concerns.
“It’s not just a numbers game, we want to grow our membership but we are looking at the quality of the institution,” Carr said. “If you look at the ones we are bringing in, about 10-12 this next year, we’ve had three different ways or paths that these schools come to us. Relatively small schools playing at a smaller level and the NAIA needs to continue to play a role for those schools. A lot of junior colleges are becoming four-year institutions, but it’s about making sure they are true four-year schools and not just have one program. The third would be schools that were in the NCAA and we’ve been seeing one of those each year at an average.”
In the long run it’s a race against the numbers.
“Each school will make the decision for itself what is best, but I think members leaving could have a greater effect in the future (with more returning/staying in the NAIA) because of the difficulties of competing D2,” Osborne said.
Erickson, who coached at the NCAA Division I level, sees the budget as one big issue with a move from NAIA to the other organization, but also recruiting.
“Budget and travel is always a big deal (in NCAA), but I think recruiting is tougher on schools trying to move up,” Erickson said. “It’s a whole different band wagon when you come in to the NCAA rule book. It’s a lot easier to recruit the kids I need (at the NAIA level) through personal relationship. It’s nice not worrying about breaking a rule with the NAIA … just by contacting them.”
Scholarships tend to be of a larger monetary value for NCAA kids compared to the NAIA which packages smaller athletic awards with academic and federal monies.
Currently, USM and the KCAC seem to be a solid fit with the NAIA.
“The KCAC is probably the most stable or the second most stable league in the NAIA,” Crawford said. “We have a really solid, NAIA membership here with our 12 schools, and I am not aware of any of them exploring any other options. We are probably the most satisfied with what the NAIA is doing. Membership is not a point of issue for us.
“I have made it a point to be a really, good partner with the NAIA. I have pushed coaches and administrators to seek leadership opportunities. … I am able to have difficult conversations with the national office staff and those things have happened purposely. Before I became commissioner, I understand that the KCAC didn’t have that kind of ear with the NAIA. That’s been really purposeful and constructive for us.”