Could UMHB make the jump to FCS?

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The fourth anniversary is approaching of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) deciding to kick St. Thomas from the league because it held too many “competitive” advantages. St. Thomas was eventually granted permission from the NCAA to jump directly from Division III to Division I and joined the Pioneer League for football. 

Could Mary Hardin-Baylor be facing a similar path soon?

The answer isn’t as simple as it may seem, but the possibility can’t be ruled out considering the recent changes in the American Southwest Conference. 

Southwestern departed the ASC for the Southern Athletic Association for the 2023 season. The Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference will soon reinstate football, with McMurry, Austin College, and Texas Lutheran returning to the SCAC. Added to the movement is Sul Ross State joining the Lone Star Conference in 2024.

It’s no secret that UMHB’s success in all sports, but primarily football, is the impetus behind the recent departure from the ASC. Not everyone agrees the Crusaders should make the jump to Division I.

Still, every coach and industry expert consulted for this story agreed that UMHB has the facilities and roster talent necessary to be competitive immediately if they make the jump.

“I think they’re an above .500 ball club pretty fast. They’ve already got Division I facilities. Their facilities are currently better than we have here,” one FCS coach said. “When kids are looking at colleges in the FCS ranks, they don’t give a rat’s ass about programs. They want to know what the facilities look like, what their money will be, and what the uniforms look like.”

However, moving from Division III to Division I isn’t easy, considering athletes do not receive athletic scholarships in DIII. At the same time, FCS schools provide up to 63 scholarships and have roster limits.

“They would take a huge loss in revenue with all programs,” one ASC coach said. “Instead of having a roster of 200 players with most of them paying their way in football, UMHB would pay for 63 players and only have another 20 or so players that pay their way.”

“Some of the big Division III schools across the country consistently operate with 200 or more players on their roster,” a DIII coach said. “That’s a ton of revenue. Now, they’d have to maintain a roster of 110, so how do they make up that revenue for the school?”

And it’s not just football that could create financial difficulties if UMHB moved to Division I.

“You’re talking about revenue across the board with all athletic programs,” another ASC coach said. “That’s what put McMurry in a financial crunch when they tried to move to Division II, and they’re still trying to dig out of that hole.”

Loss of revenue is certainly a sticking point in any plans for UMHB to jump to DI, but one industry expert said the cost might not be as much as we’re led to believe.

“The general student population is only paying about half of whatever the sticker price is at the school,” the source said. “A slightly above-average student with a solid B average is usually automatically qualified for 50 percent off tuition. The amount of tuition dollars they’d lose is really only half of the tuition.”

That’s still a large chunk of money when you consider that scholarships would be provided and roster limits would exist on the other 15 programs in UMHB’s athletic department. 

The discussion thus far has revolved around the assumption that UMHB would join the Southland Conference or the Western Athletic Conference. However, there is a Division I conference that doesn’t provide athletic scholarships. What are the chances that UMHB could go that route and follow St. Thomas to the Pioneer League?

“I can’t imagine they’d really want to be in the Pioneer League,” one industry source said.

“I think going to the Pioneer League could be an option, but they’d be at the bottom of that conference in endowments,” one coach with experience at UMHB said. “They would go from a position of strength to a position of weakness.”

So joining the Pioneer League is unlikely, but another obstacle remains in the way of UMHB if they try to move to Division I, the NCAA.

“I think it’d be tough for Mary Hardin-Baylor to get the waiver to go to DI,” one industry source said. “One of the reasons why St. Thomas was greenlit to reclassify is they were kicked out of their conference and had nowhere else to go in Division III.”

Unlike St. Thomas, there is a Division II conference in Texas that would more than welcome UMHB into its membership.

“I would think with the Lone Star Conference right there that it wouldn’t be an easy sell for Mary Hardin-Baylor to convince the NCAA,” another industry source said.

Of course, this is all just speculation, and sources indicate that UMHB’s administration has almost no desire to leave Division III. But it’s still fun to dream.

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