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Division II Chowan moving to Historically Black CIAA


When tiny Chowan University moved up to Division II a few years ago, it knew it needed the stability that comes with joining a conference.

So the private, predominantly white Baptist school of about 900 students in northeast North Carolina shopped around for a league for its football program. One by one either because of geography, sport selection or a simple unwillingness to expand several possible homes for the Hawks were cast aside.

Meanwhile, its most unlikely host emerged as the best fit the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The nation’s oldest league for historically Black colleges and universities next season will welcome Chowan’s football team.

Call it the colorblind conference.

“We’re being visionaries,” Chowan athletic director Dennis Helsel said. “We’re probably doing something that is not in the mainstream of North Carolina.”

Or, for that matter, in college sports across the country. The first predominantly white college to join a conference typically reserved for historically Black colleges and universities is an unprecedented marriage spurred by location and several CIAA defectors who left for the lower levels of Division I.

“The color of power is green,” league commissioner Leon Kerry said. “I’m trying to build teams, I’m trying to add teams, I’m trying to keep the CIAA successful. What’s going to make the CIAA successful today? Imagination and the willingness to make things different, and I think it’s far past the time to make things different. … Because the school’s not an HBCU, do you overlook that school? Absolutely not.”

Still, the history-making move was met with some skepticism. Critics wondered if Chowan would re-brand itself as an HBCU (it won’t) or if the switch might start a trend to change the composition of other historically Black leagues.

“One person (said), ‘Look what happened to the Negro League,'” Helsel said. “Is this a harbinger of eliminating historically Black (conferences)? And to those, I’m saying no. This is sports.

“In sports, we’re not providing what the charter was, which was to educate African-Americans in an integral system that provided cultural backgrounds and historical backgrounds. No college, no matter how much they try, duplicates that culture experience. … Chowan’s still not going to provide (that) culture.”

The move has been welcomed by leaders from Black schools and conferences, with Southwestern Athletic Conference interim commissioner Duer Sharp calling it “a sign of progress” and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dennis Thomas praising Kerry for his direction.

“I don’t think (a conference) should be about what color the school is, because the world is not like that anymore,” said Winston-Salem State athletic director Percy Caldwell, whose school recently left the league for Division I and the MEAC.

He also called it a shrewd business decision because it exposes Black college sports to a wider audience.

“In the long run, that could be perhaps good for the conference, because now you get another segment of the population involved,” he said. “That’s going to help your marketing worldwide. It can open up new doors for revenues.”

But Chowan never set out to make history. The Hawks just wanted a home in Division II.

In January 2006, the school hired Helsel, a West Point graduate with 30 years of coaching and administrative experience in Division I, to shepherd its move up from Division III. He sent out informal feelers and drew up a list of potential conferences.

He analyzed factors including travel distances and funding for scholarships. Chowan, nestled in the heart of the CIAA’s Virginia-North Carolina footprint, is only a 90-minute drive from conference member Elizabeth City State, and he determined the average driving distance from the Murfreesboro campus to the other schools in the CIAA is 190 miles.

Before long, it was obvious to him that the CIAA was the best fit except, of course, for that pesky obstacle of race.

“We recognized we were not an historically Black college or university, and for us to approach an historically Black (conference) seemed out of place,” Helsel said.

School officials sent informal feelers to conferences, letting them know they were looking to join a league. Kerry told the CIAA’s board of directors that the conference, which had recently lost Winston-Salem State and North Carolina Central to Division I, might need to expand to remain viable and suggested Chowan as a possible candidate.

Things picked up this past May, when Kerry approached Chowan president M. Christopher White at a meeting in San Diego for Division II administrators, asking informally if he would be interested in joining the conference.

The formal offer from the CIAA came in July. Chowan’s full membership in Division II took effect on Sept. 1, and the Hawks were announced as the CIAA’s newest football program on Sept. 24.

“I thought we’d make a great team,” Kerry said.

Chowan still has issues to deal with. The school plans to boost its athletic spending next year to draw closer to what the CIAA is awarding; the league’s football programs offer an average of 23 scholarship equivalents that can be divided among players.

With a yearly tuition of $24,000, Chowan will be the priciest school in the CIAA, yet it plans to offer the equivalent of 16 scholarships next season and 24 in 2009-2010. It is planning to raise enough funds to increase its athletic budget from $1.6 million annually, add assistant coaches and spend $1 million to renovate the football coaches’ complex.

School officials said if joining the league in football goes well, they’ll push for membership in all sports, a process Kerry said likely would take another year.

But for now, Chowan is content to prepare for its role as the new kid in the league.

“The membership might be different,” Kerry said. “But the brand name will always be CIAA.”

— Associated Press

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