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JBNJBQ
06-05-2005, 05:17 PM
http://www.yankton.net/stories/060405/sports_20050604007.shtml


Nielsen: With Dwindling Numbers, NCC Looking For Some Help

By: HOD NIELSEN
sports@yankton.net


The North Central Conference is, these days, a synonym of the "nervous Nellies" of American folklore.
The one-time kingpin of this country's Upper Midwest athletic conferences and an enviable family of mid-size, NCAA Division II colleges, the NCC was a conference based on parity -- equality of quality in all teams in all sports. For years all of the championships and most of the regular season games were exciting and well-played. While there were some deep-seated rivalries and intensely played contests, there was also respect and pride -- of the teams, the schools and their athletes.

But, as the sages have written, "all good things must come to an end," and there are signs that the end may be near for the North Central Conference.

Ever since the beginning of the NCC 83 years ago, there have been changes in the makeup of the league, but there has also been a strong spine to its structure. Up until five or six years ago, five institutions -- the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and Morningside College -- stayed together through thick and thin. Creighton University, the College of St. Thomas, and Des Moines University dropped by the wayside, but they were replaced by Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa,) by Omaha University (now the U. of Nebraska-Omaha,) and by Augustana College, all excellent and loyal replacements.

UNO dropped out for a while after World War II, but came back stronger than ever in 1976. Minnesota State-Mankato came in for a few years, but dropped out when the school quit football. They returned in 1981 after a few years absence -- and they brought St. Cloud State with them.

Northern Iowa moved to the Mid-Continent Conference, a Division I league, in 1978, but they were immediately replaced by Northern Colorado.

All the way through those years, the North Central remained strong and solid.

But there were signals of change in 2002 when charter member Morningside decided to drop down a step to become an NAIA team, and Northern Colorado made the decision to move up to NCAA Division I.

Then, two years later, North Dakota State and South Dakota State submitted to lofty ambitions and left the North Central family to become NCAA Division I independents -- and all of a sudden, what had been one of the nation's strong DII groups became a nervous seven-team conference, even after the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a perennial athletic powerhouse, came aboard.

Although the SDSU Jackrabbits and the Bison of NDSU have enjoyed some degree of success in their move, the fact that they have not yet pulled any of the other NCC members along has made it tough for them to get a conference affiliation, make complete schedules for all 22 of the Division I-mandated sports, and to live with the high costs of coast-to-coast travel expenses.

And their defection has somewhat dampened the ardor of the teams remaining in the NCC.

Up until now the North Central schools have been counting on other area schools to make moves to become an NCC member, but there hasn't been as much interest as had been hoped.

The new NCC commissioner, Roger Thomas, who has a lifetime history of involvement in North Central Conference, has -- with the consent of the league's presidents -- a new angle. Thomas will begin to aggressively meet with schools that would be competitive and would fit into the well-established structure -- not only athletically, but with a similar mission statement.

Three Minnesota colleges apparently top the list at the present time. Winona State, Concordia-St. Paul, and an original member, St. Thomas have, we understand, been approached, and they haven't said no.

If the NCC continues its decline and new schools aren't interested, the three most visible schools in the conference -- the University of North Dakota, the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the University of South Dakota -- will quite likely pursue the possibility of rejoining the Jackrabbits and the Bison -- in Division I, of course.

History does have a way of repeating itself, you know. Maybe in a few years it will be the North Central Conference -- Big Time.

But not right away.