Release Date: 9/14/1998
Clarksville, Ark. --- University of the Ozarks' intercollegiate athletic program is no longer burdened by dual affiliations and provisional status. U of O officials found out earlier this month that its athletic program has been accepted as an active member of NCAA Division III, effective immediately. Ozarks had been a provisional Division III member for the past three years, and had held dual NAIA and NCAA affiliation since 1994. According to the NCAA, there are 385 colleges and universities across the nation who are active members of Division III, the only division whose members are not allowed to offer scholarships based on athletic ability.
"I like our move to NCAA Division III, and I like the fact that our scholarships are now awarded for academic achievement and exceptional leadership," said Ozarks President Dr. Rick Niece. "Academics have always been top priority on this campus. Our acceptance into a non-athletic scholarship division affirms our commitment to this university's mission and purpose: the academic, spiritual and personal development of students."
Full-fledged membership in Division III means Ozarks' athletic program can now compete for national championships, its teams are eligible for national rankings, and its athletes can appear in national statistical categories as well as earn national honors such as All-American awards.
"It certainly means a lot when you can tell your athletes that they can compete for a national championship and earn national honors," said Ozarks athletic director and women's basketball coach Jack Jones. "Those things plus the credibility and exposure of being an NCAA member should really help our entire athletic program be successful."
The transformation from a longtime affiliation with the NAIA to NCAA Division III has been a long and somewhat bumpy one for Ozarks. The initial plan in 1994 was to move from NAIA to NCAA Division II and retain scholarships. A year later, the university's Board of Trustees voted to eliminate athletic scholarships and apply for Division III status because they felt more emphasis should be placed on academics.
"The last few years have been a big roller-coaster ride for the program and there was a lot of uncertainty, but all that is changing," said Jones. "Now we're in a division that fits our college and we're competing with schools similar to us. There's some stability and excitement surrounding the program. I think we're going to find that this will be a great fit for this school."
Almost 25 percent of Ozarks' 530 students compete in one or more of the 10 sports offered at the university. Though no scholarships are awarded based on athletic ability, many of the student-athletes at Ozarks can qualify for financial aid through academic or leadership scholarships, just like any other student.
"Athletics are important on this campus, but they are intended to supplement a student's education and not supplant it," Niece said. "Too many universities have lost their focus. We are proud of our scholar-athletes at the University of the Ozarks, and I am proud that they are students and scholars first."
In preparing for the move to Division III, Ozarks eliminated athletic scholarships during the 1995-96 year. The change from offering athletic scholarships to offering no athletic-based aid has led to the biggest adjustment for Ozarks' coaching staff.
"You certainly have to look at other factors than just scoring averages when you are recruiting now," said men's basketball coach Johnny Johnson. "You have to look at test scores and grade point averages and what kind of financial aid packets you can put together for the kids. You're still trying to find the best basketball players you can find, but they have got to be the right fit." The change also means waiting a little longer to recruit athletes, according to Jones.
"We do most of our recruiting after April now and that wasn't the case before," said Jones, in his 20th season at Ozarks. "The high school kids think they are Division I or II athletes,
and when they don't get picked up by the summer, they start looking at us. That's how we get a lot of our athletes."
Another plus Ozarks' athletic department has going for it is an affiliation with the ever-growing American Southwest Conference, which is under the direction of Commissioner Fred Jacoby, the former Southwest Conference commissioner. The 14-team ASC, made up mainly of Texas schools, has been split into two divisions this year, meaning annual 17-hour bus rides to places like Sul Ross State are a thing of the past.
"The ASC is getting stronger and more stable and the two divisions will really cut down on travel," Johnson said. "Competing in a conference like the ASC is only going to make us a stronger athletic program."
Ozarks has already shown it can compete in Division III, as evidenced by the ASC championships brought home by the women's basketball team and men's cross country teams in the past two years.
While there may be more of an emphasis on the student part of "student-athlete" at Ozarks than at larger universities, Johnson doesn't believe there is a major difference in the mentality of the athletic department.
"The kids who are playing Division III compete just as hard and want to win just as badly as kids at Division II or Division I," said Johnson. "People think you emphasize academics more at this level, and for the most part your student-athletes as a whole may be taking academics more seriously. But overall we don't emphasize academics any more than we used to because we've always emphasized the importance of graduating, and that hasn't changed. Graduating and winning have been and still are our top two goals."
University of the Ozarks President Dr. Rick Niece (left) visits with athletic director Jack Jones during a recent soccer game at U of O's Hurie Field. The university's athletic program found out recently that it has been approved for active membership in NCAA Division III.