Local Augustana Fans Excited By D-I Prospects

Augustana University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin gave one of the first public acknowledgements that the Sioux Falls school was thinking about moving to Division I in athletics when she spoke to the Yankton Quarterback Club in October. “The Board (of Trustees) does think it’s important to explore this possibility because of a very critical point: Athletics can be a means to helping Augustana achieve its vision,” she said during the meeting. School officials announced last week to pursue Division I status as part of Augustana’s 2030 vision process. 

Cody Schilling applauds his alma mater’s announcement last week.

The news that Augustana University in Sioux Falls will pursue a transition to Division I athletics as part of a campus-wide 2030 vision was met with enthusiasm by Schilling, a former Augustana standout and current Mount Marty College men’s basketball coach.

“I think the fan base has been curious about Division I, and it’ll be good getting back some of those old rivalries,” Schilling said this week.

“I think it’s going to be great for the state of South Dakota.”

Augustana, a member of the Division II Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC), provided no other athletic-related details in last week’s release, but a separate release from the NSIC did note that Augustana’s goal is to secure an invitation to a D-I conference by the 2021-22 academic year.

That would give Sioux Falls the state’s third D-I university, following similar moves by South Dakota State in 2004 and the University of South Dakota in 2008.

“Sioux Falls is kind of a sleeping giant. You’ve seen the population grow and grow,” Schilling said. “They deserve a Division I school, they really do.”

And in Schilling’s case, he was a D-I caliber player out of high school in Ellsworth, Minnesota, who went on to a legendary career at a D-II school.

“I loved my four years there,” said Schilling, who had three D-I offers coming out of high school.

Augustana was quite successful while he was in Sioux Falls.

Schilling, a 2012 Augie graduate, was a four-year starter, three-time all-conference selection, two-time All-American honorable mention selection, and helped the Vikings reach the Division II national tournament three of his four years. He left as the program’s all-time leading scorer.

Much like Schilling’s, reactions to last week’s announcement have been positive, according to Augustana athletic director Josh Morton.

“People are energized by a vision,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “It’s not just athletics on an island, it’s part of the whole campus.”

That’s been part of the education process for fans, alumni and other supporters within the past week, as well, according to Morton: This is not simply an athletics-only transition.

“As an athletic department, we have a part to play, with athletics being the most visible, but it all comes together,” Morton said.

That mirrors what Augustana president Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said during her appearance Oct. 10 at the Yankton Quarterback Club luncheon, when she addressed the school’s vision and possible D-I decision. Her comments that day were among her first public statements about the potential D-I announcement.

“The Board (of Trustees) does think it’s important to explore this possibility because of a very critical point: Athletics can be a means to helping Augustana achieve its vision,” Herseth Sandlin said then.

Now that the decision has been made and officially announced, one of the next questions is: When?

As with any D-I transition, no dates are set in stone. Augustana would have to wait to see if a conference invitation comes.

“We have to make sure people understand, we’re not flipping a switch. We’re not doing it tomorrow,” Morton said.

Within the next two years, Augustana would like to secure a D-I conference invitation (necessary to begin the four-year transition) — and that’s not a guarantee, Morton added.

“That’s the first step in this whole process,” he said. “It might take longer, but with any potential timeline, we’re just working through all of that.”

The Sioux Falls Factor

Jamie Parish sees both sides of the Augustana Division I decision.

The Yankton native and current girls’ basketball coach at Sioux Falls Washington said this week it was more of the timing of the announcement — not the news itself — that caught him by surprise.

“I’m not shocked that it happened, but I’m shocked of when it happened,” said Parish, a 1998 Augustana graduate. “It’s something that’s been talked about, but there really was no inclination either way.”

The exciting part, Parish added, is that South Dakota’s largest city will now — finally, he said — have a D-I university.

“It always felt like, ‘Why not?’” he said.

Augustana’s location in Sioux Falls, with a population of nearly 180,000 residents and a population that is projected to eclipse 200,000 by 2025, may provide a recruiting advantage to the Vikings, Parish added.

“If all things are equal, I think that could sway a kid,” he said. “And if you’re a team coming for a game, flying directly into Sioux Falls might be something that would make teams consider coming here.”

It’s an edge that Augustana is embracing, according to Morton.

“That’s part of our vision. We’re blessed to be in Sioux Falls,” he said. “That’s a big reason we feel like we can do this, because we’re in Sioux Falls. … We’ve been here for 100 years, and we’re setting ourselves up for the next 100 years.”

During her speech in Yankton, Herseth Sandlin said Augustana realizes there is an “enormous investment” necessary to transition to D-I athletics, especially in regards to an athletic department budget that would likely need to be at least doubled.

“It would require a lot of financial resources from the Sioux Falls business community and our alumni,” Herseth Sandlin said.

“And the Sioux Falls community may be ready, and they might not be, and that’s part of the thing we have to vet, because Augustana certainly can’t do it on its own.”

While Augustana would eventually have to make decisions on football and wrestling (the Summit League does not sponsor either sport), its other sports could successfully transition into the D-I waters, according to Schilling.

Men’s basketball, for example, won a D-II national championship in 2016, while baseball won a national title in 2018 and women’s basketball has been one of the most consistent D-II programs in the country under long-time head coach Dave Krauth.

“It seems like the perfect time right now,” Schilling said. “The school will grow, the enrollment will grow, and I think you’ll see athletics take off as well.”

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