"There's a...tradition in tournament play to not talk about the next step until you've climbed the one in front of you. I'm sure going to the going to the finals is beyond your wildest dreams, so let's just keep it right there."
--Norman Dale (Hoosiers)
When I first joined the faculty of Northern Kentucky University over sixteen years ago, the school was bidding for more legitimacy among institutions of higher ed. Although we had grown into the third largest Kentucky state school by enrollment behind UK and Louisville, NKU was still seen by many as a commuter school with little on-campus life after the classroom doors closed.
NKU's sports programs lent to the stigma. Although various men and women's teams had achieved championship status, NKU's athletic prowess was confined to the Division II classification. By the time I arrived at NKU, conversations about how to elevate NKU athletic programs to DI status were well underway.
About a decade later the day finally came. NKU announced plans to begin a four year re-classification process to NCAA Division I athletics beginning in the 2012-13 competition year. After three years in the Atlantic Sun conference, NKU joined the Horizon League in Fall of 2015.
In August of last year, the NCAA granted NKU active status as a Division I institution. Practically, this meant that NKU athletic teams now had full opportunity to compete for berths in NCAA championships.
Among the programs least likely to reach championship status quickly seemed to be men's basketball. Yes, NKU had a fine new 10,000 seat arena. Plus it had hired a bright young coach and sported a roster that included some Mr Kentucky basketballers. But we're talking about the most prestigious and competitive of all NCAA championships--a tournament affectionately known as 'March Madness.' To get into the Big Dance, NKU men's basketball, like most other newly anointed DI programs, would likely have to wait in line a while.
Last night, NKU defied the odds. A fourth seed in the conference tournament, NKU beat UW-Milwaukee to win the Horizon League championship. The 24-10 Norse have thus secured a birth in the NCAA Division I tournament in their first year of eligibility.
It goes without saying what this means to both the athletic program and to the school at large. In the process of legitimation, this event marks a significant advance.