Goodwell, Okla.—Student athletes and coaches from all ten NCAA Division II sports at Panhandle State gathered Wednesday evening, in the Oscar Williams Field House, for a meeting called by University President Dr. Tim Faltyn, Athletic Director and Head Coaches.
The purpose of the meeting was to inform the athletes upcoming changes within the OPSU athletic department and to inform the student-athletes, first and foremost, about the process and reasons behind the proposed changes. Since taking over as the president on June 1 Dr. Faltyn has made the future of Aggie Athletics one of his top priorities, meeting with the head coaches and administration no less than a dozen times in the first couple of months. "Our focus has been the best way to create a culture of consistent growth and success among all of Panhandle's athletic programs" Faltyn said.
After months of discussion and thorough research of other institutions, a unanimous decision was made to shift all current NCAA DII programs into the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Three main factors were considered as driving forces in reaching this conclusion: student experience, economics and competitiveness. Faltyn shared each of these with the student athletes during his address and stressed that his main goal, as well as that of the coaches, was to put Panhandle State athletics in a position where each sport is able to compete at a championship level and achieve post-season status.
As recent and past economic cuts by the state of Oklahoma have had an impact on budgets campus-wide, it was agreed upon by all parties involved that a move to an NAIA conference would not only lower association costs, but would also greatly reduce travel expenses across the board where athletics was concerned. The Aggies' head men's basketball coach Jerry Olson spoke of the economic impact, "I really believe going to NAIA is the best for long range plans to be competitive. It has been very hard to compete in NCAA Division 2 without the resources that everyone else has. Going NAIA will save on travel costs and will get us closer to scholarship limits. Dr. Faltyn has worked very hard at researching the move and has the best interests of our athletes at heart." With some of the savings, Panhandle could then begin work to improve athletic facilities which would, in turn, have a positive effect on the recruitment of future athletes. Scholarships and coaching salaries are other areas that could also see potential expansion as the programs progress in the new league.
Throughout the course of the decision-making process the president and members of the athletic department inquired on a number of options before coming to a consensus on joining the NAIA. Remaining in DII or moving to the Division III rank within the NCAA were each heavily considered, but ultimately the NAIA proved the best fit given the current state of the university and level of competitiveness sport-wide throughout all the athletic programs. Panhandle State Athletic Director Dr. Wayne Stewart expressed excitement about the future saying, "I think it will provide more competitive opportunities for our student athletes, and, hopefully they will be spending less time on the bus."
A few concerns arose by the students in a question and answer period after Faltyn's address including: whether tuition would see an increase, what conference we would join, and if any sports would be eliminated in the transition. Faltyn explained that this early in the process there are still a lot of unknowns, however he did not foresee any tuition hikes in the near future. He also reminded the athletes that for the 2016-2017 seasons, they are all still competing at the NCAA Division II level and that they should remain committed to a cause greater than themselves saying, "This is not a punishment or a step backwards, but a step up that will help us get to a place where we can be our best. We need you to continue being all that you can be by making good decisions on the field of play, in the classroom and beyond. You are all part of a team now, but you will always be a part of the Panhandle family."
Dr. Faltyn also explained the process involved with making the transition from NCAA to NAIA stating, "It is our intention to apply for membership within the NAIA to be effective starting 2017-2018." The timeline is still uncertain as schedules and contracts must be taken into consideration for all sports. The application process will begin on Oct. 1, and will be under evaluation through January when a site visit will be scheduled. Once those steps are complete a recommendation will be made sometime between February and March upon which the NAIA board will vote. As to which conference the Aggies will join, that is also still under consideration. Faltyn offered that the Sooner Athletic Conference "made the most sense" but that the Red River Conference was also an option that had not yet been explored. Both of these proposed conferences would accommodate all sports with the exception of football, which would more than likely, reunite with the Central States Football League (CSFL). Prior to joining the Lone Star Conference, the Aggies held an alliance with the CSFL and are familiar with the teams in that league. In all of the conferences mentioned significant travel cost savings would be realized.
Looking ahead, Aggie Football's head coach Russell Gaskamp said, "Dr. Faltyn and our administration are taking the necessary steps to not only ensure the long term health of our great institution, but also are renewing a commitment towards excellence in our athletic programs. We feel like this moves us in that direction and the coaches are fully behind the decision." For the present, however, Gaskamp remains focused on the current season and gaining success in the Lone Star Conference. "For the time being, our staff and players are solely focused on winning every game we can this year as a Division II member of the LSC, which we are very proud to be a part of." Some of the football players are unhappy about perceived step down, with one athlete quoted as saying, "I'm upset. I feel like we can and do compete on a Division II level."
One staff member shared similar feelings commenting, "I'm a little disappointed with the timing of this change, particularly where football is concerned; I think it is something that should have taken place several years ago when the team was independent and already competing (and winning) against NAIA opponents. The coaches and players have worked so hard to get this team into a premier Division II program like the LSC, and have already shown that they have great potential to compete within that league. Unfortunately, now we will not get to see how that could have played out." The employee went on to say, "I do, however, understand the decision and the reasoning behind it; and I look very forward to seeing, not only football, but all Panhandle sports adding wins to their records and being proud of the teams and the school they play for."
Assistant Athletic Director and Head Women's Basketball Coach Charles Terry commented on the move saying, "I recommended this shift to hopefully move all programs forward, and to get focused on the tasks at hand of developing good-character players and be competitive in all aspects. It will be a process, but I'm looking forward to the change." Panhandle Volleyball's head coach Mike Stephens is also confident that this change will bring a competitive edge for the Aggies adding, "We will be able to compete at this level and, logistically it makes sense from a travel and geographic standpoint. Our commitment to bringing in quality student athletes will not waiver. We will have higher expectations athletically and will strive for academic excellence as always." Meghan Mulcahy, head softball coach, also looks forward to what this change has in store for her team and the growth of the softball program.
While some student athletes appeared to be skeptical about news of the switch, others have already expressed their support with one team member saying, "Moving to NAIA is big news to a lot of us, but excitement is already brewing and I think this transition will help open up new doors for the Aggies and will put Panhandle State Athletics on the map." The Aggies' Head Baseball and Cross Country Coach Jason Miner also sees the move as beneficial, especially to the athletes themselves. "The NAIA has some great institutions that focus on some of the same things that Panhandle State promotes, such as a good education and service to community. The NAIA Champions of Character initiative is something that we can embrace and be proud of," Miner offered. He continued adding, "From a coach's perspective, I am also looking forward to playing some schools that are closer to us regionally and working to compete at a national level." One of Miner's baseball players, Quinn O'Neill was happy to comment on the change stating, "I feel that this move, as a whole for the university, is a good move. It may not feel like it to certain athletes, however, in the big picture I think it's the best move for us as a college."
Dr. Faltyn assured the athletes that he carried great respect for each and every one of them and, therefore felt it necessary to address the situation in person as soon as possible and avoid any confusion or misrepresentation of the facts. He also encouraged the athletes to talk openly with their coaches and parents about the impending changes and vowed to keep everyone as informed as possible throughout the process. Information will also be shared publicly as the shift transpires and actions are finalized.