LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Bellarmine's basketball team, which has been highly successful on the NCAA Division II level under the direction of a former University of Louisville assistant, may get a chance to flex its muscles on the next level.
Bellarmine officials have confirmed that the school is studying moving all of its 22 varsity sports to NCAA Division I, with a conference affiliation in the Atlantic Sun. The potential upgrade is part of a plan involving the growth of the entire university, including increasing its enrollment and enlarging the school's profile and visibility in both the Louisville area and nationally.
"In January 2018, Bellarmine began developing a new strategic plan to shape the university's future," the school said in a statement released by assistant athletic director John Spugnardi. "In addition to a number of academic and administrative priorities, the plan calls for the university to review its athletics conference and divisional alignment. The goal of this review is to ensure the university is maximizing student opportunities for leadership and growth, alumni engagement, and the reach, visibility and impact of Bellarmine both regionally and nationally. This process is under way, with opportunities for continued input from the Bellarmine community."
Spugnardi and Bellarmine media relations director Jason Cissell declined to elaborate on the statement, but the Courier-Journal reported that representatives from the ASUN conference were on Bellarmine's campus last week to discuss a possible move and a decision is expected by May 15.
Bellarmine officials will continue to discuss the matter internally and plan to conduct a series of community town halls to get input about transitioning to Division I.
All but one of the private university's athletic programs compete in the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference. The men's lacrosse team has competed in Division I in the Southern Conference since 2005.
Much of the ASUN's membership has been built with teams jumping from Division II to I, the most recent being Liberty, Florida Gulf Coast and North Alabama in 2018. Other ASUN members are Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, NJIT, North Florida and Stetson.
Bellarmine, with an enrollment of 2,552, would be the smallest of the ASUN schools, but Jacksonville (2,920) and Stetson (3,150) are comparable.
Bellarmine's men's basketball team is coached by Scott Davenport, a former UofL assistant under Rick Pitino, and the Knights have grown into an annual GLVC power and Division II top-25 program during his tenure. They won the 2011 Division II national championship.
Bellarmine's homecourt, Knights Hall, seats only 2,196, and would be among the 10 smallest basketball facilities in Division I. However, the Knights played an exhibition game against Cincinnati in Freedom Hall this past season and could conceivably meet some of its D-I opponents in UofL's old home.
A move to D-I would undoubtedly require an increase in financial support for athletics. Bellarmine's expenses for 2017-18 were $8.57 million. The lowest of the current ASUN members were North Alabama ($9 million) and North Florida ($11.9), while the highest was Liberty ($40 million).
Davenport says he supports Bellarmine's interest in moving to D-I.
"Anything that's great for Bellarmine University will be great for Bellarmine basketball," Davenport told the C-J. "Whatever happens, I'm proud that they are spending an unbelievable amount of time and effort and energy in doing what's best for everybody -- the staff, the students, their families, the alumni, everybody. That's very comforting to me as the basketball coach."
Two other former GLVC teams have had success after moving up to D-I. Purdue Fort Wayne upgraded in 2001-02, joined the Summit League in 2007 and upset No. 3 Indiana in 2016. Northern Kentucky left the GLVC for the ASUN in 2012, then joined the Horizon League four years later and has played in the NCAA Tournament two of the last three years.
The NCAA requires schools moving to D-I to undergo a four-year reclassification process, during which they are allowed to compete at that level but aren't eligible to play for championships until they become full members.,
Four schools are currently in the process of move to the D-I level -- Merrimack College, UC San Diego, Long Island University and Dixie State. Long Island U will merge its C.W. Post Campus into a single D-I program.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.