OWENSBORO, Ky. -- Western Kentucky University's board of regents approved a move from NCAA Division I-AA to I-A football Thursday.
The board voted 7-2 in favor of the switch, with one regent abstaining.
The switch to I-A would take the Hilltoppers out of the Gateway
Football Conference, leaving the conference with seven members and
possibly opening the door for membership by North Dakota State
University and South Dakota State University.
The conference has requested information from NDSU and SDSU in
preparation for possible expansion, the league's commissioner has
NDSU and SDSU are in the transition process from NCAA Division
II to Division I-AA and are members of the Great West Football
Conference. They have been accepted into the Mid-Continent
Conference in other sports; the Mid-Continent does not sponsor
Western Kentucky will submit paperwork to the NCAA office before
June 1 and will be considered a reclassifying school for the 2007
and '08 seasons. The first year the Hilltoppers, the 2002 Division
I-AA champion, will be eligible to participate for a Sun Belt
Conference championship and a berth in a bowl game is 2009.
"I think that the greatest benefit is going to be the prestige and the perception, the value of the WKU brand," athletic director Wood Selig said.
One obstacle Western will face will be the attendance requirement. The NCAA says Division I-A teams must average 15,000 paid attendance for home football games. The Hilltoppers are averaging around 9,500 this season. There are plans to expand their Smith Stadium from 17,500 seats to 22,000.
"We must all be careful not to look and evaluate this move to I-A in the short term of three-to-five years. Rather, this is a bold, long-term move
that should be evaluated over several decades as to its total positive impact on WKU and the Commonwealth of Kentucky," Selig said.
The Hilltoppers, who have had 10 straight winning seasons, will add 22 scholarships and increase the football budget by an estimated $2.5 million over
the next three years.
Information from The Associated Press and SportsTicker was used in this report.