SFU joins NCAA

BURNABY (CUP) – When Simon Fraser University opened in 1965, Chancellor Dr. Gordon Shrum fanaticized about the school competing for the Rose Bowl and lived for the day when his ambitious vision would come true.

It’s not the Rose Bowl, but Shrum would be proud to know that SFU will be playing in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, as the university was granted its official acceptance into the world’s most prestigious collegiate association last Friday.

SFU is now the first non-U.S. school in the NCAA.

Starting in the 2011-2012 academic year, Clan varsity teams will compete in Division II’s Great Northwestern Athletic Conference against schools from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.

“It means a high level of competition and challenge for our athletes,” said President Michael Stevenson. “As has always been the case, our primary concern is that our athletes succeed as students. The NCAA has strong academic requirements and we will maintain the high academic standards that SFU has always demanded from all Clan teams.”

For Athletic Director Dr. David Murphy, while there are no concerns about National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics teams being able to compete in the NCAA, having already faced similar competition, the next two years will be a scramble to build up the talent level on the CIS teams making the transition from Canada West.

“Right now, all of our NAIA teams are competitive. They already compete against Division II and Division I competition, and they do quite well. Men’s basketball, football, and certainly women’s volleyball will be a challenge,” Murphy said.

Helping that process will be SFU’s ability to entice outstanding athletes from across the country and elsewhere abroad with full-ride athletics scholarships, which are not allowed at Canadian universities in the CIS.

While there is a limited amount of money one school is allowed to spend on athletes, it will give SFU leverage to attract homegrown talent (and other outstanding athletes) that have tended to head south to the U.S. to pursue their athletic dreams – at schools where the competition is superior and scholarships are available.

“You’re going to have to recruit across the country first off and probably down the West Coast as well,” said Scott Clark, SFU’s men’s basketball coach. “Up until now, given the restrictions by the CIS, all you’re allowed to give is tuition. That limits who you can recruit – local kids, because they can be close to home, [but] somebody from Ontario or Quebec isn’t going to come here if all they’re receiving is tuition. They could go to McMaster or some other university that’s closer to home.

“But if you’re going to pay the whole shot [with a full-ride scholarship], then now you can attract some student-athletes.”

For SFU, which became the first full-time Canadian member of the NAIA in 1967, the move serves to uphold its historical trend as pioneers in Canadian university sport.

Lorne Davies, the longtime athletic director who spearheaded SFU’s participation in the NAIA, had applied for acceptance into the NCAA in 1967 and 1969, but the NCAA wasn’t willing to admit Canadian universities until January 2008.

Now a decision that was 40 years in the making has finally come to fruition for a university determined to compete at high-level U.S. college sports from the beginning.

“It’s a great step. The competitive environment south of the line is a lot better than the competitive environment up here, so I’m excited about that. I think that it allows players to get a lot better,” said Clark, who’s entering his 15th season as SFU’s head basketball coach.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in order for us to be able to compete at that level. Getting better players is going to require a lot of cash, so that’s probably the next order of business.”

Money will certainly be required for teams to offer scholarships, but Murphy disputes the claims that the athletic budget will have to increase dramatically in order for the varsity teams to compete in the NCAA, saying it’s all a fallacy.

In particular, the cuts on travels costs for the teams playing in the CIS will free up money that can be spent elsewhere, as well as lower registration fees for belonging to Division II compared to the Canada West – it’s $44,000 cheaper, according to Murphy.

“Right now, we’re flying to Brandon, Manitoba, we’re going to Saskatoon, we’re going to Winnipeg, we’re flying a lot of places. [But] we have five teams within a two-hour radius that we can drive to, so obviously there won’t be a whole lot of difference in the financial aspect. We’re going to save money on our travel, we’re going to save money on fees for registration,” he noted.

Coupled with the recruiting advantage and low travel costs of competing down south, there’s the respect factor of playing in the best collegiate sports association around the world.

“The initials ‘NCAA’ have a real magic to them. They’re the largest college sports organization in the world and people are familiar with schools that compete at the NCAA level,” explained Davies.

“Now, we’re not fooling anybody by saying that we’re going to be competing against Notre Dame and USC, but the [schools] we compete against are high quality and have top-flight athletes.”

Among the preparations over the next two years, building a new stadium for SFU is a definite requirement with admittance and participation in the NCAA. The expansion of a new basketball and volleyball gym was completed in 2006, and Murphy and the athletic department have started to work on seating arrangements for Terry Fox Field, where all teams will be playing in the fall.

“We already started the program ‘Bring Our Teams Back Home,’” said the athletic director, who hails from Boston. “If you look out there now, we have a scoreboard. We have a number of stands that will be coming on [Friday, July 24]. We’ll start playing all our home games up here on the Mountain and hopefully we’ll get the support of residence and all the students.”