SportsCenter, meet Knights Nation.
At a fan-filled news conference in the Centro Atrium on June 18, President Susan M. Donovan announced that Bellarmine University’s athletics program will move to NCAA Division I through an invitation from the ASUN Conference. The move, she said, realizes one of the first initiatives in Bellarmine’s new strategic plan, to expand the university’s geographic reach to enhance its reputation and impact.
The Knights won’t compete at DI until the 2020-21 school year, but it was clear the plan was already working: Dozens of news outlets, including Sports Illustrated and USA Today, reported the move; the DI announcement ran all afternoon on the ESPN ticker; and the entire press conference was broadcast live on ESPN+, with which ASUN has been a partner since 1989.
Board of Trustees Chair Bill Mudd called attention to the power of such exposure by referencing Bellarmine’s NCAA Division II men’s basketball national championship in 2011. Following that nationally televised game, searches and inquiries from prospective students spiked. “With the move to Division I, we no longer have to wait for a national championship to play on the national stage,” he said.
Thanks to a significant number of DI schools in the region, moving to the ASUN also means that Bellarmine will be able to schedule more compelling non-conference games, perhaps even against universities such as Louisville, Kentucky, Western Kentucky or Indiana.
Bellarmine will be the 10th member, and the fifth private university, in the ASUN Conference, whose members are spread across seven mostly southeastern states, from Florida to New Jersey—areas where the number of traditional college-age students is growing.
“As a Division I school, we will be able to share all that Bellarmine has to offer with a larger audience than ever before, through increased media coverage and event attendance,” Dr. Donovan said. “This will allow us to recruit excellent students from a much wider geographic area … and increase the diversity of our student body.”
Academics will remain Bellarmine’s top priority, she added. Division I maintains even more rigorous academic standards than Division II—standards that Bellarmine student-athletes already meet or exceed.
“Bellarmine is going to The Show,” said Athletic Director Scott Wiegandt, a two-time Bellarmine graduate, former professional pitcher and former BU baseball coach who has been AD since 2006. “In every way, this transition is the next natural step. In 1985 I came here as a freshman. I experienced Bellarmine College at its fullest. I came back as a professional to coach at what transitioned into Bellarmine University. So this, it really seems like just the next part of the foundation of Bellarmine’s future … But what is most exciting to me is that, like Bellarmine, the ASUN puts students first. That’s why I came to Bellarmine. I was a biology major. Sure, I came here to play baseball, but it was about getting that degree, because I wanted to expand the field of play beyond my four years. Our student-athletes are challenged academically, socially and athletically, and that’s how we are going to recruit. We’re going to do this with Bellarmine-profile student athletes. This will be Bellarmine’s version of Division I.”
A possible move to Division I had been discussed for some time. Former President Joseph J. McGowan first looked into DI possibilities in 2001, and Bellarmine established its DI lacrosse program in 2005. This most recent exploration arose during the extensive, 12-month strategic planning process that President Donovan began in January 2018 and that involved significant input from faculty, staff, alumni, students and other community stakeholders. Expanding Bellarmine’s geographic reach and impact became a consistent theme of these discussions.
Studies of conference realignment typically involve a great deal of confidential one-on-one negotiation. A school must accept a conference invitation that must then be approved by the NCAA. No conference wants to run the risk of inviting a school to join only to be publicly rejected. Similarly, no institution wants to announce publicly its intent to make the transition to DI, only to find there is no invitation being offered. For those reasons, Bellarmine proceeded through the preliminary discussions with utmost care. The ASUN vote to accept Bellarmine was unanimous.
Now the news is out, in a big way. And the whole city is celebrating.
Noting that Louisville had just celebrated Muhammad Ali Week, Mayor Greg Fischer declared at the news conference: “This is a very Ali-like move that Bellarmine is making here. Going big, saying we’re gonna be the biggest at what we want to do and take on greater challenges.”
Then he took a peek into the future (following the four-year transition period the NCAA requires before NCAA Tournament play).
“Think about CBS Selection Sunday, to hear the name ‘Bellarmine Knights’ called. To see Scotty Davenport, calm and reserved and emotionless while that [announcement] is made, will be a wonderful thing to see … This is just a beautiful seed of success that is being planted for Bellarmine and our city today.”
By Carla Carlton and Assistant Sports Information Director Adam Pruiett
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar