Commentary

Houston Baptist, Seattle U. in the transition game to D-I

Originally Published: October 17, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

The phone in Ron Cottrell's hotel room rang at around 10:30 p.m., signaling that this particular long day wasn't quite over. On the other end was a reporter working on a story on Cottrell's newly reinstituted NAIA basketball program at Houston Baptist University. After speaking with Cottrell for a few minutes, the scribe mentioned he would also need to speak to the school's SID to get some additional information.

Without hesitation, Cottrell said, "Well, she's right here. Let me give her the phone."

You can only imagine what the reporter must have been thinking for those couple of seconds before Cottrell snatched the phone back and added, "Oh, by the way, this is my wife."

Matt England
Houston Baptist athleticsHouston Baptist's Matt England in 1984, in the program's last Division I NCAA Tournament appearance.

It is a quaint story illustrating the true mom-and-pop nature of HBU basketball. A decade and a half later, very little has changed in the way the program operates. Cottrell is still the head coach (and also has been the school's athletic director for the past 13 years). His wife, Jacque, still heads up the media efforts.

There is one not-so-small difference, though. Eighteen years after Houston Baptist pulled the plug on its Division I basketball program, it is beginning its return to college basketball's highest level.

* * *

Leigh Swanson came to Seattle University two years ago to play Division II hoops. Now, in a couple of weeks, his junior season will open with an exhibition game against Kentucky at Rupp Arena, part of a celebration of the 50th season since the teams' 1958 national championship game matchup. The reunion also provides a bridge to the future. It is the starting point for Seattle's five-year process to return to Division I.

"We've looked at the past. We've seen all the great programs that have come through here, and that's where it's going again," Swanson said. "We know we're setting the foundation for the future, and what we've done here, everyone's going to remember that. We're going to be part of history."

It should be an eye-opening experience for a program that last played on college's largest stage in 1980. The Redhawks' Connolly Center seats 1,050 and their average crowd last season was 572. On Nov. 3, there could be 40 times that in Lexington.

"My coach and I were just flipping through some pictures of a sold-out Rupp Arena," Swanson said. "It just gives you chills."

* * *

There isn't a lot that distinguishes most of the nascent programs that recently have embarked on the journey to Division I. Many are not ready for this stage, and some may never be. Currently, 20 schools are in various stages of the reclassification process, with three more having just completed the transition. The NCAA has become so concerned with Division I oversaturation that in August it passed an emergency four-year moratorium on new applications.

Houston Baptist and Seattle University, though, sneaked in under the deadline and stand out among the baby-faced newcomers because of their histories. In the past 15 seasons, only four programs have returned to the Division I fold after original multiyear stints at that level. And only one of those has made the NCAA Tournament -- Oral Roberts, with four all-time appearances after repeat trips in 2006 and '07. Now that list has become three.

HBU won the Trans America Athletic Conference (now the Atlantic Sun) crown in 1981 and then again in 1984, when it also won the league tournament and made the NCAA Tournament. That was the middle of a three-year stretch under Gene Iba, nephew of legendary Oklahoma State coach Hank Iba, when the Huskies went 65-24. That's a far cry from when Iba first took over the program from Bob McKinley, who went 18-63 in his three seasons.

"They had won like [seven] games the year before," said Iba, who is now the head coach at Division II Pittsburgh State in Kansas. "They'd had pretty good players, but they were required to go on the road [to play] … and they didn't have a conference. It was just a mess."

Houston Baptist marquee
Houston Baptist athleticsHouston Baptist had a lot to celebrate in 1984.

"The first year [when Iba's team went 11-16] … I thought it might have been one of the best coaching jobs our staff had done," Iba added. "We played with freshmen. … Those are the ones that went to the NCAA Tournament a few years later. That's what made life fun. I was a little younger then, too. It was just nonstop coaching for someone who loved coaching. There was just two of us [with assistant coach Tommy Jones, who took over the program in 1985 after Iba left to take over at Baylor]. It really was as much fun as I've had in coaching, just building the program."

HBU had some early success under Jones, too, but after two straight nine-win seasons in the late 1980s, the university, under new administration, terminated the basketball program. The school dropped its other sports to Division II and then moved to the NAIA, where the reconstructed basketball program has competed since 1991 and has become a power. Iba, though, remains confused by the move.

"I never understood it," he said. "There's no question we weren't going to make money for the university, but most college basketball teams don't. I thought it was great publicity. It was more publicity than that school got with anything else, but evidently the new administrators thought it wasn't cost-effective."

Apparently, the school's new administration under former Baylor president Robert Sloan thinks it is. The move to Division I required the school to grow from five sports just two years ago to 14 this year. That growth, along with related personnel costs like more coaches, trainers and compliance people, tripled the school's athletic expenses, according to Cottrell. A rough estimate places that bump at several million dollars.

"Our mandate from [president Sloan] was, 'Look, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it at the mid-Division I level,'" Cottrell said. "I don't want to scrimp by. I don't want to be at the lower level. I want to be do it at a level where we can be competitive. I don't want to hurt the university by getting in over our heads. I want it to be a positive for everyone."

* * *

If Houston Baptist's history makes it D-I newbie royalty, Seattle's makes it the transitional king. The program, then known as the Chieftains, featured players like future NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor and "Sweet Charlie" Brown during its run of 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in 17 seasons during the 1950s and '60s, back when the event involved about two dozen teams, not 65.

What we tried to do in six years is not build a team but build a program. I think that's what we're going to do again in the next five to eight years in the transition to Division I.

--Joe Callero

That's a legacy of extended success that few D-I programs in any era can match. As such, even though Seattle U. last played Division I ball in 1980, athletic director Bill Hogan noted that many locals still remember those teams with a passion and are willing to invest, both financially and emotionally, in the re-established Redhawks.

"The potential here is outrageous," said Hogan, who spent 15 years as the athletic director at the University of San Francisco. "When I left the Bay Area, there were nine Division I schools within a drive [of USF]. Here, there is one. There's a lot of corporate sponsorships. There's general enthusiasm. People remember the good ol' days. … It was an outstanding program with a wonderful tradition, and it will be fun bringing that all back."

The man in charge of bringing that all back is seventh-year head coach Joe Callero, a local native who has rebuilt a struggling D-II program into an NCAA Tournament team at that level.

"I'm 45 years old, and 44 of my 45 years, I've lived in Seattle," he said. "I really know it. My father's an SU grad, and [so is] an older brother. Really knowing that history and that tradition creates the infrastructure both emotionally and socially to get this job done.

"What we tried to do in six years is not build a team but build a program. I think that's what we're going to do again in the next five to eight years in the transition to Division I."

The transition should, in theory, be eased by the school's desirable location. The Redhawks will play in Key Arena, current home of the NBA's Sonics, and there is a booming basketball culture in the city that is generating more and more college-level talent. Callero notes, though, that in order to fully realize those advantages, some re-education is in order.

"The hardest part of recruiting is transitioning the Seattle kids into thinking we're a legitimate Division I opportunity for them," he said. "…You know and I know Division I sports have hype to it. They call it goose-bump feel. [We'll have arrived when] they say Seattle U., and it comes out it's not just great academics, but, 'Oh, I saw them on TV.'"

* * *

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any basketball program, and it's doubly important for schools that are entering Division I. Doing it while being prohibited from playing in the postseason during the transition is one thing. Doing it without the promise of a conference destination is quite another. Most of the transitional schools that have made it past the exploratory first year have received league promises that have helped the adjustment. As newcomers, though, neither Seattle (despite an institutional fit with other private Jesuit schools in the West Coast Conference, its former home) nor Houston Baptist (a potential fit for the Southland or Sun Belt, among others) yet has a commitment for a permanent home.

Ron Cottrell
Houston Baptist AthleticsHBU coach Ron Cottrell is the school's basketball coach ... and athletic director. And now he's searching for a conference home for his team.

"There's probably three or four conferences that could fit us," HBU's Cottrell said. "…None of them fit us perfectly, let's put it that way."

None of the conferences are apparently that eager to welcome a nascent program, either.

"I think [the lack of an agreement is] more the fact that we're provisional and it's going to take awhile," he added. As a former NAIA member joining the NCAA, HBU's transitional period is seven years, not five. "…They want someone to step right in and be competitive and be involved in postseason and that sort of thing. … The other issue is that you have to have facilities that attract a conference. The president and the board of trustees [are] well aware that our facilities have to get better and they're committed to doing that."

Seattle needs to keep its options open, too, because the WCC, according to Hogan, basically is in "wait and see" mode with the development of the school's basketball program as well as other new sports. Hogan said he understands the WCC's position but thinks Seattle's institutional patience ultimately will be worth it.

"I think the first thing you always get concerned about is Division I league affiliation," he said. "…We know there are 17 or 18 others out there that are independent, and we also acknowledge that they will be good partners with us as we go through this process. But I think everyone who is independent would prefer to be in a league."

Until that time, both Cottrell and Callero are left fashioning creative approaches to ramp up the talent levels in their respective programs. Both coaches sell recruits on the chance to play a national schedule in famous arenas. While Seattle is still playing a full Division II schedule this season, HBU has an aggressive hybrid slate that includes games with Pitt, Saint Louis, William & Mary, South Alabama, SMU and Creighton.

"Because we recruit so much locally, they know enough about our program, that we've been in the national tournament 10 years in a row," Cottrell said. "They know I've been here a long time, so there's stability here, hopefully. And they know we play a fast-pace tempo, and they like that and like the idea of being able to play close to home. The trade-off is, now I know we're not going to be able to go to the national tournament … but we're going to play a higher-quality opponent [in the regular season]."

Callero's pitch this season also includes a mandatory redshirt year, so his new players will have a chance at an NCAA Tournament bid their senior year and a chance to play in a pro arena -- assuming the Sonics don't leave town.

"You can say, 'You're playing home games the same place Kevin Durant is,'" Callero said. "Kids like that. I like that. It gives us an NBA feel."

* * *

There's still so much to do, but on the eve of their programs' returns to Division I, both Callero and Cottrell sound content -- and realistic. Both repeatedly mention philosophies that center around patience and building through four-year players who fit into the ethos of their religiously affiliated universities. Slowly, year by year, they'll strive to make the progress that will allow their teams to compete at this level. They also have the full support of administrations that understand how difficult this process will be.

"I think we all kind of recognize there will be some tough days, and we've kind of resolved ourselves to that for the good of the institution, that we're willing to go through those," said Seattle U.'s Hogan.

That doesn't mean that the coaches aren't allowed moments to dream. Callero said he was there, sitting on a light pole, during the celebration after the Sonics won the NBA title in 1979, and he has visions of a similar scene some day for Seattle U.

"Twenty years ago, after getting my first coaching job, I was in downtown Seattle in a bar with one of my best buddies in college," Callero said. "… He says, 'What's your dream college job?' I was at Seattle U. working on my master's. I said, 'The best job in America would be for me to coach Seattle U. back to Division I, win the national championship, come back down here to Pioneer Square and party.'"

Over the next few seasons, though, Seattle and Houston Baptist more likely will be party to their fair share of adversity. More than on the scoreboard, success will be measured by blowing out the proverbial candles each year as the programs age and mature. For now, just the fact that they even have a piece of the Division I pie again should, in itself, be cause for celebration.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and hosts the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.