“It’s time to be II,” said Mike Jones, Athletic Director for the Mississippi College Choctaws, during the announcement Friday that NCAA officials had accepted the their appeal to become a Division II member. The NCAA originally denied the university’s application this past July.
“A lot came down to communication issues,” said Nate Salant. “Once those were clarified, the Membership Committee had a much clearer picture of what MC brings to the DII table, and it reversed its decision.”
Salant, Commissioner of the Gulf South Conference, felt that the Choctaws would be accepted throughout the entire process.
“We believed that MC was more prepared than any other school in this year’s applicant pool.” The Choctaws will return to the GSC for conference play in 2014.
“It was a long and complicated effort,” said Mississippi College President Lee Royce, “but we are gratified in the result.”
The announcement satisfied many, but unfortunately the effort is far from complete.
MC’s appeal was approved, but the university will now begin a candidacy period of two years, followed by a provisional year, before finally becoming complete Division II members for the 2016-2017 season. In the summer after each year, the university will require authorization from the NCAA to proceed to the next step of the process.
“We are a little disappointed that we won’t be able to repeat,” said Daniel Lang, a junior who serves as a captain to the men’s soccer team. Last year, the team won the American Southwest Conference Championship and participated in the Division III soccer tournament. “But we are excited, this is a good step for the future of Mississippi College,” he added.
During the years of ineligibility, the Choctaws plan to compete for championships in the National Christian College Athletic Association, also know as the NCCAA. There are currently four teams in the process of joining the GSC, and each of these will compete in the NCCAA during their respective years of NCAA ineligibility.
“We have a great chance to compete in that format,” said Lang. He was not concerned about Division II opponents, either. “It’s nothing we can’t handle,” he said, “we are excited to move to DII, and we think we can rise to that level.”
That level of competition is nothing to overlook. Since 1971, Gulf South members have won 48 national championships across 13 sports. The Valdosta State University Blazers are the reigning champions of Division II football.
Jones, who has been involved in MC athletics for nearly 30 years, has a particular interest in Delta State University.
“There will be some competitive games, and we look forward to having that again” Jones said. The Choctaws were long time rivals of the Fighting Okra, and DSU will be the closest GSC competition.
Lang went to high school with a Delta State soccer player. “It is always exciting to compete against friends, and I think it will be a rivalry just like before,” he said, adding that it may take a few years for tensions to build between the schools.
“It’s a great rivalry, already in place,” MC’s head football coach, Norman Joseph, said. “I think it will be refreshing for fans to see the familiar matchup.”
Fans can conceivably travel to road games at Delta State, a quick two-hour jaunt north to Cleveland, Miss.
The GSC has many teams that are relatively local, which was another draw to the conference and Division II. In ASC competition, the Choctaws would frequently have to drive deep into the heart of Texas to reach their competition.
“Reducing travel time is great for our athletes, because now they will be able to spend more time in the classroom,” said Jones. Playing locally has other advantages.
“We draw a lot of students from Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi so playing more games in those areas will give us even more exposure,” said Jones, who believes that the move will help recruit both athletes and non-athletes. “It is a great move for the institution as a whole.”
The elevation to Division II will also allow MC to offer athletic scholarships, the strongest recruiting tool permitted by the NCAA. Current athletes will be eligible for these scholarships, and coaches will be responsible for both recruiting and offering the grants.
Scholarships will be a powerful asset to the athletic department, but will consume a large amount of budget.
In the spring of 1995, the Choctaws had been participating in DII for many years. Howell Todd, former President of the university at the time, said “academic programs must take priority in our budget allocations.” The athletic budget was cut, and Mississippi College demoted itself from DII to DIII, much to the uproar of students and alumni.
It was a disappointment that led Bobby Knight, a member of the 1995 football team, to a harsh comparison. “We feel like we have had a National Championship stripped away again,” he said.
Knight was referring to the 1989 Division II National Football Championship. After an investigation led by the administration of MC, a report was submitted by then-President Lewis Nobles to the NCAA in early 1992.
A year later, the Choctaws had their championship title vacated. The university had committed several recruiting violations, including giving double the amount of permissible scholarships.
Six years later the school found itself in economic troubles and reduced its athletics program. Now, 18 years after the decision to downgrade to DIII, Mississippi College will once again ascend to Division II to reclaim its reputation.
“Its something we have been thinking about for many years,” said President Royce. “This is a great day for MC.”
“We are looking forward to becoming a model Division II program,” said Jones. Model programs are not content to simply exist. They are not placated by a change in the name of their classification.
It is time to look ahead to the next goal: honestly and truthfully recapture a Division II Football National Championship.
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor