In 10 years as coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, Russell
Ellington traveled to 122 countries, never had a home game and
(need it be said?) never lost in over 1,500 tries. If you have
the time, he'll lean back, stroke his mustache and tell you
stories from the road, from old Globies treks to Greece and
Russia and Peru. "No other team in America travels like the
Globetrotters," Ellington says with a cackle.
Maybe so, but no college team in America travels like Morris
Brown, the small, historically black private school in Atlanta
where Ellington, 63, now toils as athletic director. Unlike the
Globetrotters, though, his Wolverines almost never win. As the
newest member of Division I, Morris Brown has yet to join a
conference, which forces its hoopsters to barnstorm the country,
playing road games against mightier opponents for up to $40,000 a
pop to keep its cash-strapped program afloat. This season's
schedule would bring tears to the Washington Generals' eyes, with
22 away games against such heavyweights as Clemson, Tulsa, Ole
Miss, Boston College, Southern Miss, Oregon, Iowa State,
Marquette, Colorado, and Western Kentucky.
It was the same story last year, when as a provisional member of
Division I the Wolverines traveled 17,000 miles, took in $287,000
and went 6-23 as sacrificial lambs, winning only four games
against Division I opponents. "The worst thing was lying to my
players," says Ellington, who coached the team for four years
before becoming the athletic director last February. "I'd say,
'You can beat these people!' I knew we couldn't. We were getting
beat to death." Meanwhile the athletic department took its own
hit, spending $3.5 million on $1.9 million in revenues.
Morris Brown is among the dozens of colleges that have jumped to
Division I in recent years, lured by the siren song of increased
prestige and a chunk of the 11-year, $6 billion television
contract the NCAA has signed with CBS. In the last two decades
the number of Division I basketball teams has skyrocketed by
24%, from 261 in 1980 to 292 in 1990 to a record 324 this
season. In the last four years alone 15 schools have joined,
including such powerhouses as Elon, High Point, Sacred Heart and
Stony Brook. Waiting in the wings as provisional members--those
whose applications to move to Division I have been accepted but
are awaiting the NCAA's final seal of approval--are Birmingham
Southern, Gardner Webb, Lipscomb, Savannah State and Texas
A&M-Corpus Christi. Every Division I newbie thinks it can be the
next something ("the next Valpo," as Mike Strickland, the
athletic director at Belmont University in Nashville, calls his
Bruins, or "the next Stanford," the goal of University of Denver
chancellor Daniel Ritchie) and a handful of programs have
prospered competitively since making the move, most notably
College of Charleston, Division I class of '91.
November 19, 2001
Yet the vast majority soldier away in obscurity, negotiating a
treacherous landscape that features chronic losing, uninterested
fans, wacky conference affiliations (or even worse, none at all)
and, not least, crushing financial deficits. To make the jump in
basketball, most schools have to add other sports because the
NCAA mandates that Division I teams compete in a total of at
least 14 men's and women's sports. Most of them are in the
nonrevenue category. Facilities often must be built, scholarships
added and recruiting budgets introduced. Contrary to popular
myth, most Division I athletic programs lose money.
"Schools get caught up in the idea that they can make money off
athletics," says Jamie Pollard, president of Collegiate Financial
Services, a Wisconsin firm that examines the financing of college
sports. "They can generate revenue, but few actually make money.
Athletic departments rarely fund themselves."
The NCAA certainly thinks too many schools are taking the plunge.
By next year the Division I Management Council plans to make the
leap more difficult. It will increase the waiting period for
lower-division schools jumping to Division I from two years to
five (and increase it from four years to seven for schools coming
from outside the NCAA). Says Steve Mallonee, the NCAA director of
membership services, "The concern is, are schools really prepared
when they commit to going to Division I?"
The evidence says that many are not.
Former Morris Brown athletic director Gene Bright says he had no
plans to jump to Division I when he fielded a call in early 1999
from Rudy Washington, the newly hired commissioner of the
Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). Since 1922 Morris Brown
had competed in the small-school Southern Intercollegiate
Athletic Conference in Division II, traveling by bus to games in
neighboring states. The Wolverines weren't a basketball
powerhouse, but they would go on to win a respectable 17 games in
1999-2000, their last season in Division II.
Washington had big dreams for the SWAC, from staging a lucrative
conference football championship to moving the league
headquarters (from New Orleans to Birmingham) to expanding its
10-school membership. "The SWAC wanted a team in the Atlanta
market," recalls Bright, who's now retired. "Rudy planted the
seed. He came to Atlanta and invited us to join the league."
Bright bought Washington's pitch, and in June 1999 Morris Brown
announced it had petitioned the NCAA for Division I membership.
"We want to play Georgia Tech and lose to Florida State by 40
points," Bright pronounced giddily at the time, referring to the
football team. "I think it's going to be the best thing Morris
Brown has done in decades."
Then something odd happened. Later that year the SWAC presidents
denied membership to Morris Brown. "Rudy never told me what
happened," says Bright, who adds that the SWAC never returned
Morris Brown's $12,000 application fee either. "He must have
thought one way, and the presidents' council thought another
way." (Washington declined SI's request for comment.)
Despite the SWAC snub Morris Brown forged ahead in its drive for
Division I, adding four sports (baseball, softball and men's and
women's golf) and planning a $50,000 upgrade of John H. Lewis
Gymnasium (capacity: 3,000). The Wolverines already had a
gleaming on-campus, 18,000-seat football stadium, which had been
built for field hockey at the '96 Olympics, and they continue to
share a track with nearby Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University.
The baseball, softball and tennis teams use city-owned facilities
at Atlanta's Washington Park. After a two-year transition that
ended in September, the NCAA notified Morris Brown that it was an
active member of Division I--but not without a few misgivings,
most notably the lack of conference membership.
The two men most responsible for Morris Brown's move to Division
I have since left their jobs--Bright resigned last January after
an alumni-led putsch, while the SWAC fired Washington last
May--but the school's athletes, coaches and administrators are too
busy dealing with the Division I fallout to dwell on that. "We
can't survive if we're not in a conference," says Ellington.
"That's the only way our revenue sports will get to [the NCAA
tournament], and that's the way to participate in sharing
revenues with the NCAA. A conference is going to give you lasting
stability, and then you can develop rivalries."
Joining a conference would also guarantee a significant number of
home games and lighten the concert-tour-like travel schedule. In
a modern-day Long March, the Wolverines will leave on Dec. 26 for
a date at Oregon, not to return until Jan. 12, seven games and 18
days later. "That's more than $12,000 just in meals," says new
coach Derek Thompson, 32, who was an assistant last year.
"D-I and D-II are like two different worlds," says junior forward
Amien Hicks, whose first airplane flight (and first glimpse of
snow) took place on a road trip to Pittsburgh last year. "In D-II
we'd never miss class, because we'd go to a game and come back
the same night. This year we'll miss days at a time." To address
that problem, each player travels with a school-issued laptop
computer. Some get used more than others. One Wolverine from last
year's team is now academically ineligible.
"All the traveling wasn't so bad for Coach Ellington and me
because we're old Globetrotters," says James (Twiggy) Sanders,
the former Globie who's Morris Brown's sports information
director. "But by year's end some of our kids were struggling."
Whether Morris Brown will knock off one of the big boys this
season is another matter. Last year the Wolverines had only two
post players, the 6'5" Hicks and 6'7" sophomore forward Akiem
Claborn, and Claborn fouled out six times. "Size killed us," says
Thompson, who brought in four juco transfers this year, three of
them 6'8" or taller. "Playing this schedule, we need to have some
guys who aren't wet behind the ears."
How does Thompson find the means to recruit 10 scholarship
players (three fewer than the NCAA max, thanks to budget
limitations at Morris Brown)? You don't want to know. "I don't
even have a so-called recruiting budget," he says. "We only have
one line item in the budget for basketball expenses [$89,000 for
2001-02], and that's the money for us to travel, feed the kids
and do whatever we need to do that year. I'm on my hands and
knees begging for some money to recruit ballplayers. Sometimes I
foot the bill myself." Earlier this year Thompson spent $1,500
of his own money on a weeklong recruiting trip to Florida with
an assistant, no small expense for a coach earning $48,000
Then there are the hidden costs that come with Division I
membership. "In Division II we paid refs $125 a game," Bright
says. "Now you have a Division I schedule, and some refs get up
to $450. I said, 'Wow, what is happening here?'"
Despite the hardships, Morris Brown's players and coaches
maintain that they're better off in Division I than they were in
Division II. "I don't think I can get to the League scoring 25
points a game in Division II," says Claborn. "But if I put up 25
on Ole Miss or Texas A&M, then I'll get the exposure." Says
Hicks, "The losing hurts, but our dream is to get into a
conference and go to the tournament. Even if we don't, we can
lay down the track for the future. We want to make this a legit
In hindsight the architect of Morris Brown's move to Division I
questions whether the plan should have been adopted. He recalls
how Rudy Washington also tried to lure Morris Brown's rival,
Clark Atlanta, to Division I, but Richard Cosby, then the
athletic director at Clark, refused, saying the price tag was too
high. "In this situation Richard had the sense to say no," Bright
says. "And here I was saying we had a chance to make this work."
Sitting in Bright's former office, Ellington insists Morris Brown
can make it work, though he realizes he's running out of options.
The Big South conference is supposed to get back to him this
month about possible expansion, he says, and the Mid-Eastern
Athletic Conference said it would let Morris Brown know by next
spring. When asked by SI, however, the commissioners of both
leagues say they have no plans to add members.
What then for Morris Brown? "We need one of those rich
philanthropists who loves to give money," Ellington concludes,
only half joking. "Give us a $300 million endowment, and we'll
just use the interest."
Is there a correct way to move to Division I? Or more precisely,
how did the College of Charleston make a seamless transition from
the NAIA to Division I in 1991? The Cougars reached the NCAA
tournament with an at-large bid in their third year of play, and
their winning percentage during the 1990s (.847) was one of the
highest in Division I.
Charleston coach John Kresse never thought it would go so
smoothly. Before the start of the 1989-90 season, the Cougars'
first provisional Division I year, Kresse met with school
president Harry M. Lightsey Jr. to discuss his manifold fears.
"I was scared," says Kresse, now 57. "I knew going to Division I
was going to be something like purgatory--near hell--and I was
worried I wouldn't have a job for too long. The president ended
up giving me tenure in the P.E. department. That way, at least,
I would have a job teaching P.E. if I got fired as the coach."
Stability--Kresse's, the school's and the community's--was
ultimately the key to Charleston's rise. A former assistant to
Lou Carnesecca with St. John's and the New Jersey Nets, Kresse
had turned the Cougars into an NAIA powerhouse after taking over
in 1979. Unlike most coaches, though, he had no aspirations of
moving up the ladder to a bigger school. "I have seen the lights
of Broadway," Kresse says, and Charleston suits him fine. "I am
not a coach who is looking to play musical chairs. To be able to
tell players you will be here is important."
That wasn't all. Because of its NAIA success, its sizable
student body (11,620) and its location in South Carolina's
largest city, Charleston was courted by several conferences,
which allowed it to bypass the usual scheduling hassles for new
Division I schools. During its two provisional seasons the
Cougars played what amounted to a Big South conference schedule,
cutting down on travel costs and boosting the number of home
games. As a result Charleston could build on the loyal fan base
Kresse had established during the school's NAIA days. Having
traded up from the Trans America conference to the Southern in
1998, the Cougars routinely play to packed houses in the
3,500-seat, appropriately named John Kresse Arena, and plans are
under way for a 6,000-seat facility. (Even with all its success,
the athletic department still runs a deficit, though it's
Yet Charleston's Division I fairy tale remains an anomaly, the
result of felicitous circumstances that rarely occur at other
schools. "I get calls all the time from schools asking what we
did right," says Jerry Baker, Charleston's athletic director.
"Certainly we did some things that were critical to our success,
but we were successful long before we thought we'd be."
Or as Kresse advises the Morris Browns of the world, "Get used to
the hills and the mountains. There are going to be plenty to
climb, but hopefully you'll be one of the fortunate few who like
us have done it almost overnight."
In other words, good luck. (You'll need it.)
It's hard not to root for Reggie Witherspoon, the affable,
perpetually hamstrung coach at Buffalo. Two years ago he took
the job just after the season had started, only to make his
debut three days later--against No. 7-ranked North Carolina. He
has a two-year record of 7-44, has yet to win a conference road
game and is trying to right a program that has been on NCAA
probation twice since it jumped to Division I from Division II
in 1991. "It's like running a race with a bag of rocks on your
back; then you take some off and run a little faster,"
Witherspoon says. "We haven't gotten them all off yet."
Buffalo could have received the NCAA death penalty last spring
for its latest violations--mainly involving improper evaluation of
recruits--committed by Witherspoon's predecessor, Tim Cohane. (The
Bulls were repeat offenders, because an assistant coach had been
caught providing players with free airline tickets in 1989,
before the move to Division I.) Instead the NCAA spared the
Bulls, noting that the violations came under different staffs,
and slapped them with a minor sanction. (Buffalo will have four
fewer recruiting visits than the usual limit of 12 this season.)
On the other hand, Witherspoon had to deal with Buffalo's
self-imposed sanctions last year, which reduced basketball
scholarships from 13 to 12, permitted only one coach at a time
on recruiting trips and delayed the start of practice two weeks
until Nov. 1. "Last year we had eight new guys and two new
assistant coaches," he says, "and while everyone else was doing
Midnight Madness, we were doing our Midnight Darkness." Opening
its season only 16 days after the start of practice, Buffalo
lost 18 of its first 20 games and finished 4-24.
Still, the question isn't whether Buffalo is big enough to
support Division I athletics. It is. With more than 23,000
students, Buffalo is the largest school in the State University
of New York (SUNY) system. Since 1998 it has belonged to the
Mid-American Conference, one of the nation's most respected
mid-major leagues. The reason the Bulls spent 10 years in
Division III, from 1978 to '88, was that SUNY prohibited athletic
scholarships at the time. "We're not a small, private liberal
arts college," says William Greiner, Buffalo's president since
1991. "We're the same size as the smaller Big Ten schools."
He also insists that Buffalo has not sold its soul to join the
big time, noting that the first NCAA violation took place when
the Bulls were in Division II. "We weren't happy about the latest
situation," he says. "It happened on our watch, and we'll take
our lumps for that. But it had nothing to do with the academic
standing of the athletes. Nor were there any payoffs or financial
Others, though, wax nostalgic for the days before Division I. Dan
Bazzani coached the Bulls from 1983 to '93, from Division III to
Division II to Division I, and his fondest memories are of
Buffalo's electric series against crosstown rival Buffalo State.
"Those games were wonderful," he says. "The students would go
crazy, throwing toilet paper everywhere. But Buff State wanted
nothing to do with us when we moved up to D-I."
Bazzani suffered the most from Buffalo's jump. A captain of the
Bulls' 1964-65 team, he was a respected coach who'd had six
winning seasons in eight years at the Division III and Division
II levels. Then Buffalo fired him after he went 2-26 and 5-22 in
two Division I seasons. Says Bazzani, "They were probably the
worst two years of my life."
There was the typical assortment of "guarantee games"--so-called
because they come with a guarantee of up to $50,000 for the
visiting team--that the Bulls had to play to boost their rapidly
depleting $2 million athletic budget. At one point before his
second season in Division I, Bazzani's staff was on the road
recruiting and got called back to Buffalo. "The athletic director
[Nelson Townsend] called us all in," he recalls, "and said, 'Do
not spend any more money and turn in any recruiting money you
have. We're broke.'"
At least Bazzani is winning games these days, having led Niagara
Falls High to a 26-1 record last year. ("I'm loving coaching
again," he says.) Buffalo, meanwhile, has largely recovered from
its financial woes of a decade ago, thanks to a healthy dose of
state support and student fees. The Bulls' athletic budget has
increased from $2 million in 1991-92 to $5 million in 1996-97 to
$12 million for 2001-02. Of that $12 million, 40% comes from a
state subsidy, 35% from student activity fees--each student is
charged $310 a year for athletics--and 25% from
athletics-generated revenue. "We are very competitive with the
rest of the MAC schools," says athletic director Bob Arkeilpane.
Witherspoon's basketball budget is $750,000, more than three
times the size of Morris Brown's (but less than half of North
Carolina's). It's all part of lightening that load of rocks on
his back as he looks forward to a day without NCAA sanctions.
This year Witherspoon brought in a recruiting class that includes
three freshmen from Michigan and Turner Battle, a guard from
North Carolina who's a top 100 recruit. "We need to be stable and
do things the right way," Witherspoon says. "It's not going to
happen overnight, but we know shortcuts aren't the way to go
To the people who run Northeastern Illinois, the notion that
their 11,000-student commuter school on the northwest end of
Chicago needs Division I athletics seems laughable. The majority
of the school's students work full time. Most are the first
members of their families to attend college; half are minorities.
There is little time for watching sports, and a mandatory $48
student fee for athletics is money that is needed elsewhere. Yet
only four years ago Northeastern Illinois competed at the
Division I level, using student fees and state funds to finance a
program that few cared about and even fewer have missed since the
university scuttled the entire athletic department at the end of
the 1997-98 season.
In the late 1980s Gordon H. Lamb, Northeastern Illinois's
president, argued to the school's trustees that the way to
promote the school nationally was through Division I sports. "My
predecessor had a dream, that the jump to D-I would bring glory,"
says current president Salme H. Steinberg, who was an associate
provost when the school left Division II for Division I in 1990.
The centerpiece of the move was the men's basketball program, the
only one of Northeastern Illinois's 14 sports with the chance of
making money or gaining exposure. The Golden Eagles hired Rees
Johnson, a successful NAIA coach at Wisconsin-Parkside, and
Northeastern Illinois squeezed $10.5 million from its capital
development budget to build the Physical Education Complex, which
included a 5,000-seat gymnasium. "I thought it would work,"
Johnson says. "But money was tight. When we jumped to D-I, we had
eight scholarships. It stayed at eight for four years, even
though 15 was the max at the time."
It was certainly a strange environment for the athletes. The
average age of the students at Northeastern Illinois is 26.3.
Without any dorms on campus, the 170 scholarship athletes lived
in an apartment complex a few blocks away. Yet Johnson's program
gradually improved each year, from 2-25 as an independent in
1990-91 to 17-11 in 1993-94 as a member of the East Coast
The next year, shortly before Northeastern Illinois's first
season in the Mid-Continent conference--a move that greatly
reduced travel expenses--the Illinois Board of Higher Education
sent a directive to its universities asking them to determine the
"appropriate scope and size" of their athletic programs "in
relation to institutional and academic priorities." The board was
concerned about the increasing amount of state funds going to
athletics, and in the Golden Eagles it had a perfect example.
That year Northeastern Illinois's basketball team generated
$92,965 in revenue, not enough to cover its own expenditures of
$163,130, much less those of the nonrevenue sports that drove the
athletic budget to $1.57 million.
Steinberg formed a task force to examine the issue, and in May
1996, following a season in which Johnson's team went 14-13 but
drew only 500 fans a game, it recommended that Northeastern
Illinois drop to Division II. Later, Northeastern Illinois's
board of trustees voted to stop using state money for athletics
and to develop a fund-raising plan instead.
A study which focused on the school's ability to raise $3
million over three years concluded in August 1997 that many of
Northeastern Illinois's alumni "believe the University should
focus more on improving the quality of its academic programs
rather than promoting athletics." A month later, after seven
years in Division I, the trustees voted to drop all sports. "It
was like getting punched in the stomach," says Johnson, whose
1996-97 team had finished 16-12, with wins over Arizona State
and Oregon State. "You work for almost 10 years at something,
then it gets taken away. The kids were devastated; I was
devastated. We had good players coming back, and I think we
could have made the NCAA tournament."
Four years later Johnson, 60, is coaching at Division III North
Park in Chicago. He won his 500th game last season, his 36th as a
coach, but he's still coping with the fact that his Division I
dream has passed him by. "I had two goals when I got into
coaching," he says. "I wanted to run a clean D-I program, and I
wanted to coach one game in the NCAA tournament. I got to do the
first, and I think I was close to doing the other."
While sympathetic, Steinberg supports the decision to deep-six
Northeastern Illinois's sports. The more than $1.5 million used
annually for the athletic budget has been diverted to academic
programs, renovations, scholarships and opportunities to study
abroad. The phys-ed building that was rarely open to regular
students is now a hub for intramural and club teams. Students
with children bring them to swim in the Olympic-sized pool.
"We've tried to do a lot of things to foster community, and it's
sad that athletics is not available," Steinberg says. "But it's
all about choices and priorities. This was a difficult decision,
but I don't think there's any doubt that it was the right
On a recent Friday an empty black hearse was parked outside the
gym at Morris Brown. It's hard not to think of it as a metaphor
for an athletic program in financial and competitive distress, a
prod for an uncomfortable but necessary question: Is Division I's
newest member dead on arrival?
Dolores Cross, Morris Brown's third president in six years, hopes
not. "I do worry about the cost of going to Division I," she
says. "If it got to the point where I thought it was costing too
much, I would pull the plug."
Then again, Cross can see the good things: Morris Brown's
thriving band, 300 strong; the alumni, proud and boisterous, who
flock to the school's Division I-AA football games; and the look
on the face of Hicks, the Wolverines' 6'5" forward, when he talks
about possibly knocking off Boston College this season and
"shocking the world."
Morris Brown was the first historically black college in Georgia
founded solely by African-Americans, Cross points out. "We have a
college that seems to have survived despite the odds," she says.
"Once we get to the second or third year of Division I, we'll
know whether it's catching on. We're giving this a chance."
NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME
The roster of Division I schools has swelled by 15 in only the
last four years, and the world that awaits new members is full
of harsh realities: big losses, small crowds at home games and
the resulting red ink on the bottom line. Occasionally a
fledgling program can take a bite out of Goliath--as Oakland
did, upsetting Michigan in November 2000--but for the most part
it's a dog-eat-underdog world. Just check the stats.
Year Joined School Conference Record Attendance
Division I '00-01 '00-01
2001 Binghamton America East 14-14 972
Morris Brown None 6-23 700
UC Riverside Big West 8-17 1,849
1999 Alabama A&M SWAC 17-11 1,428
Albany America East 6-22 1,148
Belmont Atlantic Sun 13-15 648
Elon Big South 9-20 708
High Point Big South 8-20 1,170
Oakland Mid-Continent 12-16 1,664
Stony Brook America East 17-11 1,193
1998 Ark.-Pine Bluff SWAC 2-25 1,405
Denver Sun Belt 10-18 1,184
IUPUI Mid-Continent 11-18 1,186
Portland St. Big Sky 9-18 790
Quinnipiac Northeast 6-21 1,003
"I'd lie to my players and tell them, 'YOU CAN BEAT THESE
GUYS,'" says Ellington. "But I knew we couldn't."
"It was like a punch in the stomach," Johnson says of the Golden
Eagles' decision to end sports. "THE KIDS WERE DEVASTATED."
"At one point," says the former Buffalo coach, "the AD told us,
'Don't spend any more money, WE'RE BROKE.'"
"The concern is, ARE SCHOOLS REALLY READY when they make the
move to Division I?" says Mallonee.