What does it mean to be a member of the NAIA? What are the benefits of the NAIA over other athletics associations? What does the NAIA do for you? How does the NAIA complement your institutional mission?
Those questions and many more were part of a unique panel moderated by Jim Carr, president and CEO of the NAIA, at a session titled, "The Power of the NAIA Membership," held Monday, April 22 at the 72nd Annual NAIA Convention in Kansas City, Mo.
The panel was comprised of J.D. Collins, the Commissioner of the Crossroads League; Quin Monahan, the athletics director of the University of South Carolina-Beaufort ; Dave Odell, the athletics director at Westmont College (Calif.); John Reynders, the president of Morningside College (Iowa); and Lori Thomas, NAIA Senior Vice President for Membership and Character Initiatives.
With the exception of Thomas, who provided data on membership trends and finances, each of the panelists was chosen for his unique perspective on NAIA membership. Several had been at other institutions or conferences affiliated with NCAA Division II or NCAA Division III, and Odell was a part of Westmont's study group that examined the possibility of moving to the NCAA and declined to do so. Reynders' institution, Morningside College, was NCAA Division II prior to returning to the NAIA under Reynders' leadership.
The panel examined the most common reasons institutions report they sponsor athletics: to advance the mission of the institution, to enhance campus life, to drive enrollment, to build people of character, and to participate in quality competition at a reasonable cost.
Reynders referred to NAIA keynote speaker Bob Beaudine's words when Reynders reflected on Morningside's membership. "I think about what Bob Beaudine said the other day, 'Go where you feel celebrated, not where you feel tolerated,'" he said. "To me, one of the best benefits of the NAIA is that I feel celebrated in the NAIA. I felt tolerated at the NCAA. At the NAIA, our institution is respected for who we are, and we have the ability to offer student-athletes a great experience. At the NCAA, rules compliance seemed more important than giving that quality experience to the student-athletes."
"When we were at NCAA Division II, our institution didn't have the resources to be competitive," Reynders said. "Because we weren't competitive, we had no institutional pride, and you couldn't even sell a T-shirt in the bookstore with our school mascot on it," Reynders said, noting that returning to the NAIA, while controversial at the time, had resulted in a tremendous boost in school spirit, overall enrollment and numbers of student-athletes on campus.
"At the NAIA, because of the autonomy provided us, we have been allowed to prioritize our resources and that has allowed us to compete against fabulous institutions in our conference," he said. Reynders also noted that the school had gone from 12 varsity sports to 22, added junior varsity programs and had seen a renewal in not just its sports but its self-image.
"There is a sense of accountability to be good now, in everything, and not just put your time in" Reynders said. "We will settle for mediocrity in no corner of the institution."
Dave Odell, the athletics director at Westmont College (Calif.), agreed that the more autonomous NAIA approach had been a better fit for Westmont as well.
"The flexibility we have allows a school like us to flourish," Odell said. "We spend a lot of time determining whether student-athletes are fits with our mission. Our coaches can do a better job of due diligence with these prospective student-athletes under NAIA rules."
Odell also recounted how the community of Westmont had rallied around women's basketball coach Kirsten Moore, whose husband died unexpectedly a month before the birth of their child. She went on to lead her team to the NAIA Division I women's basketball title this year.
"The campus really came together around Kirsten (and baby Alexis) to love her, support her and take care of her. Just as would happen on your institutions, the student-athletes and really the rest of the student body rallied around her, with meals, babysitting, and a fund raiser," he said. "Before, I thought of Champions of Character as something on a scorecard. But I realized that Champions of Character forced us to talk with our student-athletes about what it means to serve. Through Champions of Character, we got great training in how to serve people. As a result of seeing that, our Champions of Character initiative has taken on a whole new meaning for me."
Odell also noted that the more flexible rules had allowed a closer relationship between the student-athletes and the coaches that had proven invaluable in a time of crisis. "The ability of our student-athletes to interact with our coaches allowed them to step up and talk to Kirsten when she was alone with a crying baby."
Quin Monahan, the athletics director of the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, noted that more autonomy was a positive at South Carolina-Beaufort, which is a public school operating within a state system.
"It's our objective to provide the entire student body, not just student-athletes, with a positive collegiate athletics experience," he said. "And focusing on countable hours, contacts and self-reporting—really just dealing with the monstrosity of the NCAA rule book—took away from developing quality collegiate athletics experiences."
J.D. Collins, the Commissioner of the Crossroads League, may have summed it up best. "The NAIA doesn't represent a product, it represents a relationship," he said. "The NAIA is personal, and it's about developing character. I don't believe you can impact someone's character without spending time with them."
To seemore about Kirsten Moore and Westmont, click here.