Canadian colleges debating possibility of joining NCAA Division II ranks

Updated: December 1, 2007, 3:58 PM ET
Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The possibility of joining the NCAA for the first time has Canadian colleges looking south of the border with mixed emotions.

Schools such as the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University see the full scholarships that would come with NCAA membership as a boon to Canadian residents who currently come to the U.S. to pursue their athletic dreams.

Other schools and officials in Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the country's governing body for athletics, see a ploy for publicity that will end up with the schools being unable to compete financially and returning to their roots.

The process of finding out who's right will likely begin in January, when Division II is expected to approve a 10-year pilot program that would allow a limited number of international schools -- most expected to be Canadian -- to become NCAA members.

Six Canadian schools have discussed NCAA membership and four have shown interest. Only UBC, SFU and the University of Alberta in Edmonton have gone public about their interest, with UBC and SFU primed to become NCAA members as early as 2009.

The move to allow schools outside the U.S. the right to apply for NCAA membership for the first time came about from a chance meeting a few years ago between UBC athletic director Bob Philip and NCAA vice president Bernard Franklin at a conference for athletic administrators.

Noticing Franklin worked for the NCAA, Philip asked if he could sit in on panel discussion. Afterward, he pulled Franklin aside and popped the question: "Could there ever be a circumstance where UBC could compete athletically in the NCAA?"

Turns out the answer is yes.

"We still have some unanswered questions," Franklin said. "But the value of having international members of the NCAA outweighs them."

The NCAA believes it will benefit from the cultural experience of athletes traveling internationally, and adding schools to help buoy a fluctuating membership base in Division II.

"There aren't a lot of schools left in the United States to add that are big schools," Philip said. "You don't have a school out there that has 45,000 students that's not playing but wants to join.

"But you do in Canada."

Until now, NCAA bylaws have limited membership to U.S. schools and those schools in a territory controlled by the U.S. The NCAA has long cast an eye northward, but never pursued a potential expansion.

"When the whole question arose at the association level about international members, the whole structure said 'Wow what a great thing,"' said Chuck Ambrose, president of Pfeiffer University and chair of the NCAA Division II President's Council. "This is a chance to take the NCAA international and perhaps help address some needs those Canadian institutions have."

The pilot program will most likely be at the Division II level, with a few sports -- like hockey or men's volleyball -- competing in Division I. Division II has searched for new members, especially in the West, to balance a large number of schools making the jump to Division I in recent years.

Hurdles remain, however, ranging from politics to border security to exchange rates.

There's also the fallout from the CIS, which sees the actions of UBC and Simon Fraser as a ploy to gain attention.

Philip isn't against being a member of the CIS or mind having other Canadian schools perceive his efforts as undermining the organization. He just wishes there was a system in Canada for those schools that want to put more emphasis on athletics.

Namely, the ability to give full athletic scholarships.

Under CIS rules, Canadian universities are not allowed to offer full athletic scholarships, only tuition for students who meet an 80 percent grade level in high school. Once at the university, the student-athlete must keep their grades at 65 percent or lose their tuition subsidy.

"At least in the NCAA they say, 'OK, you didn't do good in school, so next year you can't play, but get your marks up,"' Philip said. "But we say, 'Keep playing, keep practicing three hours a day, keep traveling all over the country, but we're not giving you any money.' It's extremely frustrating."

There are plenty of obstacles to playing in Canada. There's the extensive travel that takes the Thunderbirds as far east at Winnipeg, Manitoba (1,424 miles) for league games, to the variable level of competition and the lack of coverage CIS sports receive in the media.

But Philip's biggest complaint centers on the restrictions placed on athletic scholarships -- a major reason, Philip believes, a large segment of talented Canadian athletes go south for their college experience.

Two years ago, Philip began discussions with the NCAA, promoting UBC's size and reputation. The school sits on a massive plot of scenic land, on the western edge of Vancouver with the Pacific Ocean bordering one side, and 45,000 undergraduates and graduate students.

It's also a highly regarded academic institutions -- it was ranked 27th in the world by Newsweek.

Athletically, the Thunderbirds have won 70 national titles in 11 sports. They face U.S. competition already with baseball, cross country and track and field competing in the NAIA. Facilities wise, a new 7,000-seat hockey arena will host men's and women's hockey for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Money doesn't appear to be an issue either.

"We're not concerned about the amount of money we can come up with if we're in the NCAA," Philip said.

Marg McGregor isn't so sure.

The chief executive officer of the CIS holds strong convictions about national pride, and the steadfast belief that the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser and any other schools that move to the NCAA will return to the Canadian fold after finding the cost of competing in the NCAA overwhelming.

"Professional sport eclipses everything else in Canada," she said.

The CIS comprises 52 institutions in four leagues that spread from Newfoundland in the east to Vancouver Island in the west and range in size from universities that have 50,000 students to schools with just 2,000.

Just as varying is the importance placed on athletics at the schools, part of the Canadian culture that doesn't hold CIS sports in the highest regard.

Most Canadian athletic departments have budgets of only a few million dollars, comparable with some Division II schools. Revenue streams, though, are flat.

There's also the Olympic factor. Sponsorship dollars that could be going to the CIS or to individual universities, are being funneled to the Vancouver games.

McGregor admits some members have pushed to make the CIS more like the NCAA, with full scholarships available for student athletes. She says the organization's goal is "not to be like the NCAA. That's not every Canadian's dream, to be like the States.

"I think UBC has been very clever how they have used this to draw attention to UBC and differentiate them from other universities in Canada.

"Bottom line is we don't want them to leave and if they do leave, we'll be disappointed, but we'll wish them well and we'll continue offering quality opportunities at an affordable price to run athletic departments."

For Simon Fraser, the desire to recapture the history that stems from its location in Vancouver just north of the U.S. border is what has the university looking south.

"The history and culture of this place was built around that strategic decision to enter into an American league," said Dr. Michael Stevenson, the school's president.

Simon Fraser was constructed in just 30 months, the so-called "instant university," opening in 1965. Athletically, the university never intended on playing in Canada, joining the NAIA and playing Pacific Northwest counterparts for more than 30 years.

In 1997, many of SFU's competitors left the NAIA for the NCAA's Division II. SFU wanted to follow, but the NCAA wasn't willing to alter its bylaws. After five years of independence, SFU moved its football, men's and women's basketball, and volleyball programs to the CIS. Cross country, track and field, softball, swimming and wrestling still compete in the NAIA.

Simon Fraser, UBC, Alberta, the University of Regina and University of Victoria are the only schools to hold joint membership in the NAIA and the CIS.

SFU wants all of its programs back in the U.S., but doesn't envision ever looking at Division I as UBC might.

"We're a Division II school," men's basketball coach Scott Clark said.

Gord Grace brings a unique perspective to the debate. He's currently athletic director at University of Windsor, but in the 1990s worked in the athletic department at Michigan.

The amount of money spent on NCAA Division I athletics astounds Grace. He recently read an article that noted Ohio State spends $169,000 on cheerleading.

"That's a little bit less than what we spend on football here," he said.

Because of its proximity to the U.S., Windsor was rumored to be one of the Ontario schools looking at the NCAA. Grace said he had no knowledge of any discussions.

Still, having worked at an NCAA institution, Grace believes money -- not success on the playing field -- will ultimately determine whether UBC and Simon Fraser start a Canadian influx to the NCAA.

"To come up with the money needed, and to do it well, I just don't see it happening," he said.

Philip agreed with Grace that money is an issue, but wasn't concerned about building the needed budget.

"We're not like USC," Philip said, "but we know we can build it up over time."

He's probably right if Clark, the Simon Fraser basketball coach, is any indication.

"I love the culture of athletics in the United States," said Clark, the Simon Fraser basketball coach. "The culture of athletics in Canada, unless it's hockey, it's not as embraced as much and I think that's what made for the excitement."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press