Athletics featured in JWU Magazine

Athletics featured in JWU Magazine

The Spring 2018 edition of JWU Magazine included a feature on JWU Denver's move to NCAA Division III and the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC). Text of the story by Bill Koch is below and JWU Magazine can be viewed here.

Courtesy of JWU Magazine

by Bill Koch

CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT, if you will, how present the NCAA is in your life.

If you've filled out an office basketball bracket for March Madness, you've been touched by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

If you or your family members have enrolled in or attended a sporting event at one of its hundreds of member schools like Harvard University, Florida State University or the University of Southern California, you've been influenced by it.

You might not recognize the power of that coast-to-coast brand until taking a breath to stop and think. It's a traditional draw for schools from Rhode Island to California, something not lost on Tom Byrnes. Still in the beginning stages of his role as director of athletics at Johnson & Wales' Denver Campus, Byrnes was attracted to the position more than a year ago with an eye on a transition. The Wildcats were already in the process of moving from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), securing provisional membership in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC), which is part of the NCAA. The Denver Campus targeted the Division III ranks specifically, motivated by the thought of joining Colorado College as the only two athletic programs at that level in the state.

"People recognize the blue dot of the NCAA logo," Byrnes says. "Our recognition factor as a member of that organization — certainly the bigger of the two national organizations — will go a long way toward helping the school, its recruits and all those factors. The blue dot is a big thing."

And that's how we've arrived at this point ahead of the 2018–19 academic year. The Wildcats will host their first NCAA games in school history just after Labor Day, with individual celebrations planned for each sport. Byrnes and his department are hoping to emulate the success of a peer campus like Providence, a longtime member of the NCAA ranks thanks to readily available opponents spread throughout New England. 

"What attracted us to Johnson & Wales was that it was transitioning, and that's a really cool thing to have on your résumé," says Alicia Roth, head women's volleyball coach. "I think all of us were in the mood to take on a project; it's going to be extremely beneficial for everyone." Roth is also the university's senior woman administrator (SWA). In her SWA role, Roth is charged with enhancing the representation of female experience and perspective at the institutional, conference and national levels, as well as supporting women's interests.

Byrnes headed west after nearly a decade as the commissioner of the Capital Athletic Conference, overseeing schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Roth was a four-year student-athlete as a volleyball player at Samford University in Alabama and continued into coaching, coming to Colorado from Northwestern State in Louisiana. The Denver Campus had already filed the necessary paperwork with the NCAA and was in the early stages of making a move that would reshape its athletic department. "I thought it would be a great challenge and that I could help the school achieve its goals," Byrnes says. "I'm very excited about the whole process."

"I think our student-athletes are going to get a lot out of it," adds Roth. "It's an actual model that we can emulate." Roth's team played just six of its 28 matches on campus in 2017, four of those coming in a tournament to start the season. That was typical of most Denver Campus programs, with the men's basketball team playing its first 16 games on the road and the women's basketball team hosting just one home game before Christmas. The routine of the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference schedule guarantees opportunities to play games home and away against the eight league foes. "There was very little chance for the parents and community to see them play because of the current scheduling model," Byrnes says.

It was something of a weekend ritual for Roth and her players to pack their bags, bound for destinations like Arizona, California, Missouri and Nebraska for extended periods. It wasn't the most conducive environment for comfort or coursework, with the end of each week spent outside the classroom. Those difficulties will be somewhat reduced in the coming seasons, a significant factor in the decision to make a change.

"These kids want to focus on maintaining really good grades," Roth says. "They're not looking to play professionally after college; they're looking to go into their careers. But while they're here and at school, they want to play the sport they love. I think that's the best thing about this D-III model that I sell a lot of kids on: It creates balance. We will actually be able to give that to them."

Six members of the SCAC call Texas home, something that will also help in recruiting. Roth will be able to target athletes throughout Colorado who might not want to continue their respective careers at the Division I level, and the deep talent pools available in the Dallas, Houston and San Antonio metropolitan areas are now open. "It is so much nicer to say to a Texas kid, 'We're going to be playing over half of our games in Texas so your parents are going to be able to see you.' Denver is not truly driving distance for a Houston kid," says Roth.

The Wildcats inherit an in-state rival in the Tigers, and Roth says they've been helpful throughout the process. Those good feelings could eventually change if both programs are challenging for SCAC titles, something that would give Byrnes additional chances to market and sell his product to local fans. "We've missed out on that," Byrnes says. "We end the season so early because the current model we're in doesn't drive that enthusiasm. It doesn't drive home games for us."

A fresh start is within sight at the Denver Campus, with Byrnes, Roth and their colleagues eager to welcome their new reality. Putting themselves on the map, they hope, will be a bit easier with some help from the blue dot.

Byrnes is optimistic and excited about about the future: "I think we're going to surprise people with how well we do with a year or two of recruiting and another year or two of building,"