For Bellarmine, moving up to Division I about more than just athletics

Scott Davenport has been the head basketball coach at Bellarmine since 2005. The Knights won the Division II national championship in 2011.
Scott Davenport has been the head basketball coach at Bellarmine since 2005. The Knights won the Division II national championship in 2011. AP

After spending the first 69 years of its existence playing in a lower level of college competition, Bellarmine University announced on Tuesday that it will move into the ASUN Conference in NCAA Division I. The Knights will complete the move in 2020 and will become the only private school in Kentucky to play in the NCAA’s top division.

“This move is much more than just athletics,” Susan Donovan, Bellarmine’s president, said in press conference on Tuesday “As a Division I school, we will be able to share all that Bellarmine has to offer with a larger audience then ever before, through increased media coverage and event attendance. This will allow us to recruit excellent students from a much larger geographical area.”

Bellarmine will compete for one more season in Division II’s Great Lakes Valley Conference, which it helped launch in 1978.

The school’s lacrosse team had already been competing in Division I so the move will affect 17 programs, as lacrosse will continue to play in the Southern Conference. The move increases membership in the ASUN, formerly referred to as the Atlantic Sun Conference, to 10 schools.

The men’s and women’s swimming programs will compete in the Coastal Collegiate Sports Conference and the wrestling team will be a Division I independent.

Donovan said at the press conference that academics will remain the school’s top priority and noted that other schools that jumped from Division II to Division I had seen a jump in enrollment, largely non-student athletes.

“It was critical to us that the member schools of any conference considered be highly regarded in the classroom as well as on the field or court,” Donovan said. “ASUN schools meet that criteria. In fact, Division I schools overall maintain more rigorous academic standards than Division II.”

Louisville’s mayor, Greg Fischer, was in attendance at the announcement and said that the move to Division I reminded him of another Louisville sports figure.

“We just finished Ali week in our city,” Fischer said. “And this is a very Ali-like move that Bellarmine is making here. Going big, saying we’re gonna be the biggest at what we want to do and take on greater challenges, it’s the pedigree of our city.”

Bellarmine’s athletics director, Scott Wiegandt, said that the move will be beneficial for the school.

“Bellarmine’s going to the show,” Wiegandt said. “In every way, this transition is the next natural step. In 1985 I came here as a freshman, I saw Bellarmine College, I experienced Bellarmine College at its fullest. Came back as a professional to coach at what transitioned into Bellarmine University, so this, it really seems like just the next part of the foundation of Bellarmine’s future.”

The commissioner of the ASUN, Ted Gumbart, spoke of how well he expected Bellarmine to fit into the conference.

“We’re really proud of the athletic achievement we’ve had,” Gumbart said after highlighting the postseason successes of various ASUN schools. “We’re on the rise and we’re proud to partner with Bellarmine, who we also think is on the rise, so this is a great thing for us to get together.”

Bellarmine will be immediately able to play for conference championships in the ASUN, however the Knights will have to wait four years to compete in NCAA championships because of NCAA rules.