Beginning in fall 2006, Fort Hays State University varsity athletes and their fans will turn their attention eastward. Dr. Edward H. Hammond, FHSU president, announced in a news conference this morning that the university would accept an invitation to join the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
After receiving the invitation two weeks ago, Hammond and Curtis Hammeke, FHSU athletic director, met with the board of the FHSU Athletic Association and then sent a letter to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference giving official notice that FHSU was withdrawing from the conference.
The official notice was necessary under RMAC bylaws so that if FHSU left the conference, it would be able to join the MIAA at the beginning of the 2006-2007 academic year rather than a year later. However, the decision was not final until today.
President Hammond met with the presidents of the RMAC schools last week. "They were very appreciative of our efforts," he said at today's news conference. "They thanked us for following the conference rules and regulations, and for the way Curtis kept them informed of developments throughout the process. They indicated that they very much wanted us to stay in the conference."
The decision was not easy, the president admitted. "FHSU has been one of the driving forces in the emergence of the RMAC as a nationally recognized power among NCAA Division II conferences," he said. "There is naturally some regret in leaving the friends we have made in the RMAC. However, we also feel a great sense of excitement today as we embark on a new chapter in the distinguished history of FHSU athletics. By joining the MIAA, we will renew old rivalries with Emporia State, Pittsburg State and Washburn, and we will accept the challenge of a higher level of competition in some sports."
He said several factors were considered in making the decision.
" We think the potential for recruiting students to FHSU will be relatively unaffected by the change of conferences, because while we had established a good base in Colorado, we believe there will be new opportunities in eastern Kansas," he said. "Some others factors tilted heavily toward joining the MIAA. We have more alumni in the MIAA region, the university will have much higher visibility in the part of Kansas that represents 70 percent of the state's population, our athletic teams will get more attention in the media of the state's larger cities, the MIAA is a stronger conference overall, and we anticipate there will be an upsurge in attendance because of the excitement that this change will create."
The president said the switch to the MIAA would require additional financial resources. Initially, those costs were estimated in the range of $300,000 to $500,000 more a year, but a careful analysis showed that the new cost would be about $200,000 a year.
He said four FHSU athletic programs were identified as needing immediate increases in financial resources. The bulk of the new expenditures will be in football, where the MIAA allows 36 scholarships compared to the RMAC limit of 28. That will necessitate an increase of $100,000, up to $355,000. While that total is less than the scholarship totals for some of the other MIAA schools, the president explained that it would actually put FHSU in the top third of the conference in "buying power" because FHSU has a lower tuition to cover with its scholarship total than the other schools. The football program's recruiting budget will be doubled, to a total of $20,000 a year.
Three other programs -- men's and women's basketball, and volleyball -- also will receive budget increases to give them resources comparable to the top third of the MIAA schools. Both basketball programs will receive an additional $20,000 for scholarships, bringing their totals to $115,000. They also each will receive $7,000 more for recruiting and $3,000 more for travel. The volleyball program will receive an additional $30,000 for scholarships, recruiting and travel.
President Hammond said half the $200,000 in additional funding would be reallocated from the university's general fund and the other $100,000 would be raised privately. He said student fees cover some of these costs at other MIAA schools, but he decided not to ask for an increase in student initially because the Student Government Association approved a significant fee increase last year to pay for an extensive renovation of the Memorial Union.
Hammeke said that he and the president went to great lengths to seek input for the decision. In addition to the FHSU Athletic Association, they visited with the board of the Alumni Association, the Student Government Association, the Student Athletic Advisory Committee and Tiger Club. The university also placed radio and newspaper ads inviting the campus and community to cast votes and offer comments on the university's Web site.
" We received overwhelming support for the move to the MIAA," he said. "The feedback from alumni and the community were especially favorable." He said the on-line survey results were 355 in favor of the move compared to only 53 opposed.
" This is a futuristic decision for not only the FHSU Department of Athletics but for the university as a whole," the athletic director said. "The RMAC has been an excellent affiliation for us over the past 12 years, but looking down the road several years, we felt our ability to grow would be enhanced as a member of the MIAA."
MIAA Commissioner Ralph McFillen was unable to attend the news conference, but he issued a statement: "We are pleased that Fort Hays State has accepted our invitation to join the MIAA. The university is an excellent fit, both athletically and academically. We look forward to working with their coaches and administrators."
All FHSU teams, except wrestling, will be eligible to compete for MIAA championships beginning in fall 2006. The president said that FHSU had requested that its wrestling team continue to compete in the RMAC, a strong wrestling conference, and the discussions were continuing. The MIAA does not have intercollegiate wrestling.
Speculation about an MIAA invitation to FHSU had circulated since University of Missouri-Rolla officials notified the MIAA in June that it would resign from the conference at the conclusion of the 2004-05 academic year.
With FHSU, the MIAA will again be a 10-school conference. All the schools are located in the states of Kansas and Missouri: Central Missouri State, Emporia State, Missouri Southern, Missouri Western, Northwest Missouri State, Pittsburg State, Southwest Baptist, Truman State and Washburn.
President Hammond extended special thanks to RMAC Commissioner J.R. Smith for his support throughout the decision process.
Following FHSU's departure, remaining members of the RMAC will be Chadron State College, Colorado Christian University, Colorado School of Mines, Metropolitan State College of Denver, Regis University, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Adams State College, Colorado State University at Pueblo, Fort Lewis College, Mesa State College, New Mexico Highlands University, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Western State College.