The case for Centenary (La.) and D-III

The Shreveport Times broke a story on Wednesday that Centenary College, in Shreveport, La., had an exploratory meeting with the presidents of the American Southwest Conference as part of what seems to be “due diligence” concerning its ongoing intercollegiate athletics program.

The other Division III conference is reported to be the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, whose presidents are scheduled to meet in the next 1-2 weeks. The report also said that two other D-1 conferences were being evaluated.

Thursday’s Shreveport Times reported on a news conference held by men’s basketball coach Greg Gary who completed his first year as head coach. Gary said that he thought D-I was the place for Centenary.

Centenary College, a private liberal arts college of 854 undergrads, and its athletic community are at a crossroads.

Centenary College has been a member of the Summit League, a non-football D-1 conference formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference, since 2003. The Summit League spans nine states with its 10 full members, from Oakland College in Rochester, Mich., to Southern Utah in Cedar City, Utah. All other members are state schools except Oral Roberts University, in Tulsa. Four Summit League members play FCS football.

Travel from Shreveport to the rest of the league requires one and two layovers in major hubs. Air travel out of Shreveport goes to Memphis, DFW, Houston Intercontinental and Atlanta. There is no direct flight to Chicago from Shreveport, a feature that Oral Roberts in Tulsa enjoys. Fellow Summit league member Oral Roberts is still 347 miles away from Shreveport.

Centenary was recently placed on a postseason ban in men’s basketball for poor Academic Progress Rates (APR). The Centenary baseball program was also under scrutiny for APR issues in 2008-09.

The economic downturn is said to have decreased earnings from Centenary endowments by $1.5 million. The National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) 2008 report gave Centenary’s endowment at $118 million as of June 30, 2008. Centenary reported that the endowment was down 20% this year. The 2008 endowment was less than nearby D-III schools Austin, Southwestern and Trinity (Texas).

Centenary currently awards scholarships in men’s and women’s basketball, golf, soccer, swimming and tennis, baseball, softball and women’s gymnastics and volleyball. Full D-I funding for those varsity sports would entail 107.9 men’s scholarships and 112 scholarships for women, roughly 25% of the undergraduate student body. At current tuition rates of $22,000 per year, that is $4.8 million for 219.9 scholarships, a sum greater than the annual yield of the entire endowment at a prudent 4% rate of draw.

The challenge to find another D-I conference in the south is problematic. The Southland Conference is comprised of D-I (FCS for football) schools from Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. All 12 members are public schools. Eight currently play football. Two more have announced the addition/restoration of football, and one is studying restoring football. The announced fundraising efforts to accomplish this have been in the tens of millions of dollars.

The Sun Belt Conference is a BCS-football conference of 13 schools over eight states including Louisiana. Louisiana Tech is in the Western Athletic Conference. The other, better known D-I options are not plausible.

Centenary has not mentioned the option of a non-football D-II conference, which would be the Heartland Conference, which extends the 1050 miles from Laredo, Texas to Jefferson City, Missouri.

So, Centenary has two options in Division III.

The American Southwest Conference is a 15-member conference in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi that is divided into two divisions, East and West. The eight-member West Division is west and south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Centenary is right in the middle of the seven-member East Division. Six of the seven ASC-East members are within a three-hour bus ride on the interstate from Shreveport. Being the eighth member would balance the “travel partner” schedule used by the ASC.

The ASC sponsors every varsity sport that Centenary offers except swimming and women’s gymnastics. Several ASC members have varsity or club swimming programs. men’s club lacrosse, which Centenary has, is being explored by a few ASC schools. Centenary swimming might be the catalyst for the ASC to add the sport. Women’s gymnastics might be the only casualty in a move to D-III. The membership of the ASC has seen four members add football in the last decade, which would also be an option for Centenary.

The case that the ASC makes is almost complete accommodation for Centenary’s sports, geographic proximity, and a minimum of missed class time. The ASC offered charter membership to Centenary when the conference was formed in 1996. The conference would presumably love to have Centenary.

The Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference is expected to receive the Centenary delegation at its Presidents’ meeting later this month. Although geographically more dispersed than the ASC, the SCAC can host all of Centenary’s sports except varsity gymnastics. The burgeoning interest in men’s lacrosse in the SCAC is also a plus for Centenary’s club team. If Centenary follows the model used by Birmingham-Southern when it announced its move to D-III in 2006, then male sports such as football and lacrosse are integral to the strategy. Centenary’s re-instituting football could become the SCAC’s 10th football program. The current male: female ratio of the student body is 42:58. Adding football might bring that closer to parity. (The SCAC does not sponsor women’s gymnastics either.)

The “fit” as a peer institution is what may give the SCAC its inside track. Centenary is one of 16 schools in the Associated Colleges of the South.

Fellow ACS members in the SCAC include Birmingham-Southern, Centre, Hendrix, Millsaps, Rhodes, Sewanee, Southwestern and Trinity (Texas). (Other D-III schools in the ACS include Spelman and Washington and Lee.)

Centenary would strengthen the western side of the SCAC. The SCAC has maintained that it wants to be a 12-member conference, but Colorado College’s decision to drop football this spring probably took some of the luster of having the Colorado Springs, Colo., school in the league. DePauw, in Greencastle, Ind., is another geographically isolated member of the conference. Since the SCAC uses a travel partner format for scheduling, the departure of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Ind.) from the SCAC because of travel constraints and missed class time for its student-athletes has made DePauw’s isolation more pronounced.

Centenary joined the Summit League in 2003. It has won an average of seven games in men’s basketball in the last five seasons. The budget crunch that has hit all college athletic programs seems to be affecting Centenary. B. David Rowe will become the 12th president of Centenary on August 1st. Dr Rowe is a Southwestern grad and has spent time at Emory and LaGrange. He has a solid D-III background. However, the decision may be made by the time that he begins.

The Centenary board has hard decisions to make, but Division III athletics seems to have more plusses than minuses for a school that prides itself in its academic reputation.