Argus Leader: Augustana Seeks New-Era Success

After staying D-II, Vikings find home in Northern Sun

Matt Zimmer, Argus Leader

Augustana College has just completed what might have been the best overall athletic year in the history of the school.

The Vikings placed second in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference all-sports standings as every one of their teams had a winning season. Better yet, most of those teams qualified for the NCAA Division II playoffs.

That success has stirred a sense of optimism at the private Lutheran school that wasn't always there during the days of the North Central Conference.

"When I signed, a lot of people were like, 'Why are you going to Augie? You know they're not going to be any good,' " says former O'Gorman standout Tyler Schulte, one of football coach Brad Salem's first prized recruits. "The mentality seems different - in football, definitely, but in every sport, too. You feel like there's a sense of confidence that wasn't there before."

Part of that is because the Vikings have found a niche in the Northern Sun, a lower tier of Division II competition than the now-defunct NCC. When other area schools began moving up to Division I, the Vikings considered it. Some at the school wanted to make the move, unwilling to be left behind in the "bigger is better" movement.

But in November of 2006, president Rob Oliver announced that Augustana would look to strengthen its Division II status and join the NSIC, as did former NCC members St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth. After being accepted and completing one season of competition, the results from 2008-09 are favorable:

  • The Vikings qualified for the Division II playoffs in men's and women's basketball, volleyball, women's soccer, women's golf and women's cross country.
  • The women's cross country team captured the NSIC title and finished fifth in the nation, while the men's basketball team came within one game of the Elite Eight and the women's golf team qualified for nationals.
  • The softball team finished second in the league at 20-5, went undefeated at home, and won 31 games overall, while the baseball team made a late rally to reach the NSIC tournament (only six of the league's 14 teams qualified).
  • The football team went 8-4, the first eight-win season for the program since 1992. That included a win in the Mineral Water Bowl, snapping a streak of seven straight losses in that game by NSIC teams. The Vikings will open the $11 million Kirkeby-Over Stadium in September.

 Raising the bar
That's all a long way from where Augustana was just a short time ago. Five years ago, the future of the school's sports programs was cloudy.

Northern Colorado, South Dakota State and North Dakota State had all left the NCC to pursue Division I membership, throwing the future of the Division II conference in doubt.

Coming out of the 2003-04 school year, the Vikings were mired in a slump with many of their teams. The football team was coming off the first of what would be back-to-back 3-8 seasons. The men's basketball team went 6-21 under new coach Tom Billeter, who was trying to snap a more than decade-long streak of losing seasons.

Even the perennially strong women's basketball team took a step back that year, as the Vikings endured their only losing season under Dave Krauth.

While Augustana maintained a high reputation for academics, it's athletic program was in a rut, with facilities that were falling below the Division II par, and teams that simply weren't competing at a high level, at least in the high-profile sports.

The school devised a strategic plan, unveiled in 2005, in which the Vikings re-committed themselves to Division II and the NCC. When the NCC folded, they simply moved that commitment to the NSIC, with the goal of getting serious about competing at a national level in Division II.

That meant better facilities. Better marketing. More accountability for coaches. A more aggressive approach to fundraising. All of those things have happened, and it's paid off.

In addition to the numerous donors (specifically Bob Hall, who essentially paid for the new football stadium) Gross gives much of the credit to Jeff Holm (assistant athletic director), Jon Eng (director of development), Ann Traphagen (senior women's administrator), Bryan Miller (fundraising and promotions) and Kevin Ludwig (sports information director).

"We just weren't where we needed to be as an athletic program," says Gross. "We didn't have the facilities we needed or the funding for scholarships that we needed to compete in the NCC."

Building the future
The most noticeable area in which those efforts paid off has been in enhanced facilities - including a new stadium, training center and offices for football. Augustana also added practice gyms for basketball, an indoor practice facility for baseball and softball and upgrades to the Elmen Center, Ronken Field (baseball) and Bowden Field (softball).

Work continues on new tennis, soccer and track venues. There are even plans to have a practice area for the golf teams underneath the football stadium.

Gross admits there was some concern about what the reaction would be to the Vikings staying Division II while other area schools moved up. Some even perceived the move from the NCC to Northern Sun as "dropping down."

Average attendance actually decreased from 2007-08 to last season in football (4,103 to 3,878), men's basketball (2,725 to 2,641) and women's basketball (2,130 to 1,592).

But Gross said corporate and private support for the school's athletic teams has risen, as evidenced by the new facilities.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say I wondered if some people would leave us when we made the decision," Gross said. "One thing that helped was how the college under (Oliver) has come together in a way to better market the whole college. The academic side of the school is more closely tied with sports than it ever was before.

"I also think people looked at what we were doing and appreciated that we were doing what's best for us, trying to make smart decisions, and saw that we have a chance to be really good. People want to invest in success."

NSIC success
Of course, some would argue that Augie is only having success because they're playing in a lesser league. Athletic personnel concede that those sentiments aren't totally without merit, but are somewhat overblown, especially if you leave football out of the equation.

The Northern Sun has captured recent Division II national titles in football, men's basketball, women's basketball and volleyball.

"If you look at the last few years of the NCC, the NSIC was every bit as good in just about every sport, except football, and the four of us that joined have strengthened it dramatically, including in football," Gross says.

"Football you can still make a legitimate argument. That remains a problem, especially with the scholarship limits (the NSIC allows only 24 football equivalencies, while the Division II limit is 36). But otherwise, people who are making that comparison (to the old NCC) are thinking 10 years ago."

Salem points out that his team had made progress against NCC heavyweights like South Dakota, North Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha before the move. He adds that, aside from a few struggling teams, the NSIC has been better than he expected.

"Top to bottom it's not what the NCC was, obviously," Salem said. "But it's a league that's very competitive. We put three teams in the playoffs and won the national championship (Minnesota Duluth). I really don't care what people think - this is a good league that's going to continue to get better."

Still, with all the success across the board, Gross doesn't feel like Augustana athletics has truly arrived. As strong as the Vikings were in 2008-09, they still won only one conference title, and didn't make quite as big a dent nationally as they would have liked.

"We still need to take the next step," Gross says. "Our next step is more conference titles, and moving toward a national championship level. We're moving toward that top tier of Division II - now we have to grab hold of it. The good thing is, we feel like if you're at the top of the NSIC, you're going to be close to the top of the country."

More importantly, amid all the Division I fever surrounding South Dakota athletics, Augustana feels like it has finally found a place where it belongs.

Matt Zimmer has covered Augustana athletics for the Argus Leader since 2004.

Matt Zimmer
Argus Leader