Despite smaller budgets than major college football teams, NCAA Division II football is in the midst of a sports facility “arms race,” and school administrators don’t deny it.
“It’s kind of like the Division Ones,” said Mel Tjeerdsma, Northwest Missouri State’s legendary former football coach and former athletic director. “You have to keep up with the Joneses. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
A few years ago, the Maryville, Missouri, school had a $1 million-plus, state-of-the-art video scoreboard donated by a local bank. Its bells and whistles entertain fans at Bearcats Stadium — an average of about 8,000 fans per game (7,884 in 2017, which ranked ninth in D-II). It’s a far cry from Lincoln, Nebraska, where the University of Nebraska has the nation’s longest streak of consecutive sellouts with an average of almost 90,000 per game (89,798 in 2017).
Unlike the millions of dollars that major Division I programs see due to multiple TV networks, Division II programs have to fund their upgrades privately. Tuition at places like Northwest Missouri have gone up at a nominal rate the last several years, but Northwest students voted in 2016 for a fee for campus improvements, which includes athletics.
How it began
The arms race is a battle that dates back to 2010, according to Bruce Steinbrock, the director of development for Washburn University athletics in Topeka, Kansas.
“When the Kansas City Chiefs and Missouri Western formed a partnership and built a 120-yard turf facility, it changed the landscape,” he said.
The Chiefs decided in the late 2000s to move their training camp from River Falls, Wisconsin, closer to Kansas City. They had their share of suitors — Northwest Missouri, Central Missouri in Warrensburg and Pittsburg State in Kansas.
Missouri Western State in St. Joseph won out. And since then, athletic director Josh Looney said, MWSU’s facilities measure up to anyone in Division II.
“Pound for pound, you can put us up with anybody in the country in our athletic department facility-wise,” he said. “It has transformed across the board more than anyone.”
Missouri Western’s facility is a little different than other schools’ because the state legislature gave the Chiefs $25 million in tax credits to move their camp back to Missouri for the first time since 1990 — $10 million of that was for the indoor facility.
After that, the upgrade-games began in earnest. Northwest Missouri’s video scoreboard went up in 2014. A year later, former Missouri Western football coach Jerry Partridge proclaimed the Griffons’ plan for a new video scoreboard at the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association football media day.
“We’ve made sure it was six inches wider and taller than Northwest and Pittsburg,” he said. “That’s the arms race we’re in. Everybody is going to try to do better than everybody else.”
The scoreboard at Spratt Stadium in St. Joseph cost more than $2 million, and was privately funded. It was supposed to be the biggest in Division II football, a claim that was short-lived because Grand Valley State in Michigan announced an even bigger scoreboard only 12 days later.
Balancing athletic needs with academic needs on campus is a fine line, Tjeerdsma said, but it’s paid dividends: The Bearcats football and men’s basketball teams became the first in Division II history to win national titles in the 2015-16 academic year.
“You can say what you want, but I think Northwest Missouri State right now is probably known for football and men’s basketball than anything else,” he said.
Plus, schools aren’t just competing for the best athletes. Looney said Missouri Western is attracting more students overall.
“We’re growing year after year and I don’t think that’s any coincidence with what has happened over the last eight years here,” he said.
The next school to make its mark in the arms race is Washburn, which hopes to break ground in 2019 on a $20 million indoor athletics facility built with private funds and bond money. It will have the only banked indoor track in Division II.
Steinbrock knows the school needs to keep up.
“If you’re going to be in this conference, it’s not for the faint of heart,” he said.
And that became clear in early October, when Lindenwood University in St. Louis announced it’s leaving MIAA after only seven years.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.