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Here's why, and how, some D-III schools play some sports in D-I

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Going to try something a little different thing. Today, we have a freelance story from Jake Aferiat, a freelance sportswriter who has written for the Sporting News, Daily Collegian, and elsewhere. He reached out to me wanting to do a story on how, and why, a handful of D-III schools have decided to play a few sports at the D-I level.

What could be more Extra Points than an explainer on Clarkson hockey?

His story is below:

To be a Division III athletic director is to have different day-to-day responsibilities, goals and missions to adhere to than their counterparts in Division II or Division I.

Except, when it isn't.

There are currently 11 full-time D-III schools with Division I teams: Colby College skiing, Hobart men's lacrosse, Franklin & Marshall wrestling, women's rowing at MIT, both men's and women's hockey at Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Union, RPI and RIT, men's and women's lacrosse at Johns Hopkins and men's hockey and women's soccer at Colorado College.

As a result, those 10 schools and roughly 20 programs can eschew the Division III model and mission in those sports and offer scholarships or compete against national competition or in Division I postseason tournaments.

This creates challenges for the athletic directors tasked with leading multi-divisional athletic departments as they're operating out of two different playbooks compared to regular D-I or D-III ADs.

"Having a multidivisional department brings complexities," Franklin & Marshall AD Lauren Packer-Webster said. "The academic success of our student athletes, regardless of divisional status, is first priority. It becomes complex when you're executing the mission of the division for your sports and balancing that with the mission, the vision, and the alignment of your institution."

The NCAA went to three divisions in 1973 and a few years later, Division III schools were permitted to classify one non-football or basketball sport as a Division I team and had to abide by D-I bylaws for that sport.

This became known as multi-division classification — something that's still technically on the books today, but has been a hotly contested topic on the D-III circuit for myriad reasons over the decades.

The lowest, but also largest of the NCAA's three divisions, Division III's mission is the one which purports to focus least on athletic endeavors and more on a holistic approach to athlete experiences.

Notably, Division III doesn't offer athletic scholarships, limits its competition pool to regional rather than national games and events and prioritizes things like good citizenry and quality education over athletics.

Those are all important distinctions to remember when talking about multidivisional schools and programs and their respective goals.

Knowing Division III's mission and tenets, Division III originalists and purists used to routinely lobby against certain reforms to NCAA legislation meant to help these multidivisional schools.

One of the biggest and most contentious pieces of legislation was 2004's Proposal 65-1. It was an amendment to NCAA bylaws permitting RPI, Colorado College, Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Johns Hopkins, as well as several other Division III schools who used to have Division I teams — to continue to provide athletic scholarships to those Division I athletes.

This was seen as wholly antithetical to Division III's purpose and was seen as "a compromise of a compromise" by Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference commissioner Donna Ledwin, who voiced her opposition to this proposal at the 2004 NCAA Convention:

"...There were two very clear messages that came out of this body. One, that Division III should not offer athletically related aid… Two, this group expressed considerable opposition to multidivisional classification… [and] took a compromised position by not going after the multi-divisional classification portion of our legislation. Instead, they cut these schools a break and said we won’t try to take away that tradition, but we do want to put you in line with the Division III philosophy..."

There were also concerns about competitive balance and whether these Division I teams put their Division III teams at the same school at an unfair competitive advantage when facing off against fellow Division III schools.

RPI is one of the eight schools that benefitted from 65-1's eventual passage, and yet the school's then-athletic director, Ken Ralph — who later went on to hold the same position at both Colorado College and now at Maine, understood and concurred with their concerns.

A rule was implemented this year that both grandfathered in those schools impacted by 65-1's passage and now allows for Union, RIT and other multidivisional programs to fully offer scholarships as well.

"I completely understand why schools were saying, look, the standard of Division III competition is we do not award financial aid based on athletic ability, and that's what sets Division III apart," Ralph said. "And I agree with them."

But in Ralph's view, there was perhaps a calculus that was missing from opponents to 65-1 — the history and importance of those Division I programs at their respective schools.

These are often historic teams that have helped bolster these schools' brands more than a Division III team would and since they remain competitive, they're worth keeping around.

"We have some schools with legacy sports that are very important to the institutional identity and those are critical items to the brand element of those institutions," Ralph said. "Being able to have those schools continue on at the highest level in those sports, I think is the fairest thing to do, as long as competing at that level doesn't provide an unfair advantage to the Division III sports at those schools."

Not only are the Division III teams at these programs not at a disadvantage, but in fact it's many of the Division I teams at these schools who face uphill battles.

A program like Clarkson, for instance, was one of the first in Division I hockey to amass 1,000 career wins as a program and has seven Frozen Four appearances on the men's side and three national titles on the women's side.

Roughly a half hour from the Canadian border, the school's AD, Scott Smalling, admits people might not know Clarkson for much beyond its hockey prowess.

"Our name is Clarkson and hockey goes along with it, " Smalling said. "They may not know where the hell we are or who we are, but if you mention the name Clarkson, a lot of people will say it's cold up there and that they've got a good hockey team."

And while the reputation of those programs may precede them at places like Clarkson or Johns Hopkins or Colorado College, that only goes so far.

There's still no getting around the fact they're Division I teams at full-time Division III schools.

Indeed, much of these teams' success have come in spite of the circumstances and uphill climbs they face to maintain a competitive balance with their full-time Division I counterparts.

The costs and differences associated with these multidivisional programs run the gamut. There are recruiting and travel budgets to manage at the Division I level that there aren't at Division III. There are more stringent academic requirements for the Division I athletes and there's more revenue associated with the Division I teams.

"A lot of it deals with scope. If you walk on campus at Michigan, the athletic portion of campus feels very different than if you're at Clarkson or St. Lawrence. And so if you have a recruit that's looking at both, they're gonna look and say, 'Well, which one takes athletics more seriously?' And it's seemingly an easy response," Ralph said.

"But the reality is that you may have a smaller campus and they may actually take their sport more seriously. So, there is a disadvantage when you look at the scope of available resources at larger campuses versus the smaller campuses."

But what at first blush looks like a disadvantage can actually play into a multidivisional school's hands.

"You can go to Michigan, and obviously Michigan's played in the Frozen Four. And Michigan hockey is big, Minnesota hockey is big — but on those campuses, they're never gonna be bigger than basketball or football," Smalling said. "Whereas here, we're not as big as Michigan football. But I think it's nice knowing you're the focus of a lot of the fans."

With the Clarkson hockey team or any of these teams being proverbially big fish in proverbially little ponds, that raises yet another challenge: making sure every athlete feels treated fairly.

"The biggest thing is getting our D-III athletes to believe that they're still getting the same type of treatment as the D-I athletes," Smalling said. "Do you think a kid that is on a D-III team wants to win less than the kid in the D-I sport? The answer is no. Of course, they all want to win. They all travel on the same buses, they get the same amount of meal money. We try to do the same thing for those [D-III] athletes as the others, but they just don't get the exposure."

As Smalling pointed out, much of that has to do with the structure of Division III and its regional focus compared to Division I playing at the national level and Division I having athletic scholarships and higher costs associated with it just generally.

There is however, also, a relativity and a proportionality to everything that Smalling says is equally as important to consider when it comes to the D-III athletes.

"Just because you're playing D-III doesn't mean you're a bad athlete. In fact, you're still a great athlete. There are some D-III athletes who can still play in D-I, it may just be in a lesser role," Smalling said.

"But let's say you go to my D-III volleyball team and they win the national championship — well that means they're better than over 400 schools. So it's all proportional, right? That's the biggest juggle that I have is I want all of our athletes to feel they're valued and appreciated. And that's one of the toughest parts of the job."

That struggle Smalling describes isn't new nor unique to Clarkson. During his days at both RPI and Colorado College, Ralph experienced something similar and had similar priorities.

The way to combat it, he said, is to ensure and emphasize a top-down approach and have a cohesive athletic department.

"The Division I coaches didn't see their sports as something separate and different. They felt like their sports were integrated into everything we were doing," Ralph said. "I don't think the Division I athletes ever looked down their noses at their Division III counterparts. Athletes tend to take on the persona of their coach and if their coach was looking down their nose at their colleagues for being Division III, then it might have gotten into the athletes, but it didn't."

But just in case coaches are hard to wrangle and get on board, money and budgets can also help make sure there's equity in treatment among the different divisions.

"The programs cost how much you're willing to invest in them. So as an institution, each athletic department has to decide to what level are we going to fund our teams? What resources are needed? Who are we benchmarking against and considering to be both peer and aspirant institutions?" Packer Webster said. "So it's not as simple as we're Division I and that means we throw all the money toward Division I. You can be very strategic with how you allocate your resources. And those resources include all types, fiscal, human and physical."

So ultimately what then, is it to be an athletic director at one of these multidivisional schools?

If you look at the totality of all of this — managing compliance for two different divisions, managing athletes' egos and feelings, fielding competitive teams across two divisions and a host of other issues — it seems like to be a multidivisional AD is to constantly have a lot on your plate.

And perhaps luckily for some, it could be a thing of the past. The most recent NCAA constitution has now left it up to individual divisions to determine if they want to award multidivisional status to a member.

If it sounds like a headache to navigate all this, you'd be forgiven for thinking that.

But as it turns out, that's far from the truth.

"I think it provides a compelling experience. And I think there are a lot of positives," Ralph said. "Everybody looks and says, Well, that had to be super hard. And I'm like you know what? It really wasn't, it was a lot of fun."

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Here's why, and how, some D-III schools play some sports in D-I

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