When Clint Bryant took the reins in 1988 at Augusta State, the school played NCAA Division I in every sport.
Now, just the men’s and women’s golf teams play on the Division I level. But with the consolidation of Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences University – which still has not decided its new name – the Jaguars could be making a full return to Division I in the near future.
“If Dr. (Ricardo) Azziz’s vision for New U. is to be a Tier One research university ranked in the top 50 in the country, everything that we do should have those same ambitions,” said Bryant, who is entering his 25th year as the school’s athletic director. “My challenge in New U. is to get our sports sponsorship and our facilities to a certain level so whatever is decided by the administration as the direction we should go in we won’t be hindered by facilities and or sports sponsorships.
“I’m excited from an athletic standpoint. Athletics is not the most important room in the house, but we serve as the front porch of the university.”
In a recent interview, Azziz said he and his team will be investing in athletics. He said athletics are important to any university, and a move to Division I is a definite possibility.
“We’re going to be exploring opportunities with Clint Bryant to see what opportunities there are for to enhance some of the programs and perhaps move to Division I,” Azziz said. “It’s probably a little bit premature to discuss, but it’s something we do have in mind.”
With the addition of GHSU, the athletic program will see a solid boost in funding, which will help the Jaguars on the Division II level. To make a run at Division I, Augusta State, which dropped to Division II in 1991, will have to overcome some serious financial obstacles.
Just to join Division I, the consolidated university would have to pay an application fee of almost $1.5 million – the cost was $1 million three years ago. In two years, Bryant said, the fee could reach the $2 million mark.
Then, the school would have to be invited by a Division I conference for membership. The school would be thoroughly vetted by a league for mainly three items (academics, facilities and sports offerings) before offering an invitation. And, if accepted, the new university would go through a four-year reclassification period – one year at Division II, three years on the Division I with no postseason play.
The new university would need to add one more sport to satisfy the Division I minimum. Augusta State currently offers 13 sports – seven for women, six for men. Women’s soccer has been mentioned as the 14th sport, but first the school must upgrade its facilities.
Bryant said the consolidation of the universities will help improve the complex around Christenberry Fieldhouse. Currently, plans are being drawn to reconfigure the baseball and softball fields, while adding a new track and new soccer field to the right of the golf practice facility. Bryant didn’t mention a cost for the new complex, stating he’ll be able to address the issue more in the next six to nine months.
“I know we have the worst baseball and softball facilities of any collegiate team in the country,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to change that. The quality of our facilities need to be first rate.”
With the addition of sports and improved facilities, Augusta State would need to add to its athletic department infrastructure – more people hired to help with athletic training, compliance and sports information, for instance. Also, the school would have to add scholarship money. The maximum number of men’s and women’s basketball scholarships combined is 28 (15 women, 13 men) – the total in Division II is 20 (10 women, 10 men).
Augusta State currently has an athletic budget of $2.5 million. When the school consolidates with Georgia Health Sciences University, Bryant said his budget will expand to $3.5 million.
In the Big South Conference, a nearby Division I conference, schools on average spend between $7 million and $8 million a year, Bryant said. And that’s on the low end of schools around the country.
“How do we grow?” Bryant said. “The new university will grow. But will we have the infrastructure outside athletics to grow, housing, student life?”
Bryant said officials with the new university will be able to project growth in the near future. That’s one factor that will determine whether the school remains in Division II or makes the leap to Division I. Bryant said the new school, which will have about 10,000 students with the consolidation, would need to grow to 15,000-16,000 students. Then, there would need to be small bumps in the athletic fee, he said.
“Like the visitor’s bureau, I need heads in beds,” Bryant said. “Heads in beds pay athletic fees.”
Should the new university remain in Division II, it will likely become more of a force on the national scene. The Jaguars started making waves a few years back when the women’s basketball team advanced to the Division II Elite Eight in 2004. Then from 2008-2010, the men’s basketball team played in the Division II Elite Eight. In 2010 and 2011, the men’s golf team won Division I national titles. This spring, five of the six teams advanced to postseason play, including the men’s tennis team which made a run to the final four.