Presbyterian College has only 1,133 students. Yet after years of being a Division II school, it chose to abandon its rivalries in the South Atlantic Conference and join Division I. At the time, only Centenary was a smaller Division I school. With the Gents' move to Division III this year, the Blue Hose now have the distinction of being the smallest school in Our Game.
Joining Division I takes a huge leap of faith. The main costs associated are greater travel and more scholarships. If you want to win, you must spend more as well. As a Big South fan, I was first skeptical if Presbyterian was a good choice. Earlier in the 2000s, the Big South accepted NAIA school Birmingham-Southern in the conference. The Panthers were never a good fit, being in a bus league where everybody else was several hours away. Birmingham-Southern is a small school like Presbyterian, with just 1,504 students. After being surprisingly competitive, BSC in 2007 suddenly dropped to Division III.
BSC had thought it was going to make money, despite the fact that mid-majors always lose money. If you join Division I, you must join for the right reasons. If you want a challenge, want to work at making a name for your school through athletics and don't think losing money will make you go bankrupt, then you should join Division I. Division I gives you the chance to compete for major championships and occasional publicity from major media outlets such as ESPN. The appeal of Division I is evident, but it is not going to help you financially.
But the Big South still issued an invite to Presbyterian right after BSC dropped, wanting another football program to become more established in FCS football. As I wrote in the recap for the Coastal Carolina-Citadel game, the Big South needs to stay away from making decisions motivated by football. While PC was closer to the rest of the conference than BSC, it was even smaller than Birmingham-Southern and had poor facilities that seemed to make then unlikely to be competitive in Division I.
The Blue Hose began Division I play in 2007-08, playing an ambitious schedule with more than 80 percent of their games on the road. Many of these games were guarantee games, leading to speculation that they were trying to make money by sending the basketball team to go off and lose. But this only toughened the Blue Hose, and soon enough they began to pull off their own Red Line Upsets. They beat Wake Forest and Auburn last season and Cincinnati this year. They finished in the top half of the conference with mostly sophomores in 2008-09. As a result, coach Gregg Nibert redshirted these players whom he had recruited to play Division I. These players, as seniors in 2011-2012, would have a chance to play for a conference title and a NCAA tournament appearance, much like North Dakota State a few years ago.
Despite doing everything right to be competitive, the NCAA made the rare decision to not approve PC's self-study of its athletic program. This meant that this graduating class would again be ineligible for the postseason. PC had a change of athletic directors during the transition to Division I, and thus the paperwork did not transition well either. There were things the school could have done better as cited by the NCAA, such as better gender equality in hiring coaches (which I feel my school, High Point, also needs to be better at). But the real matter at hand was that more than 100 student-athletes at Presbyterian were basically getting hosed (pun intended). This is why a lot of people for good reason see the NCAA as a heartless bureaucracy, as so many organizations in our society are.
So tonight, like every other game this season, Presbyterian had nothing to play for but respect. And respect is something that it has been earning, with a recent win over Big East foe Cincinnati. Its opponent was local power-conference foe South Carolina, about 60 miles southeast of PC's home in Clinton. This would not be just another guarantee game, as South Carolina has struggled to beat anybody this year. Few South Carolina fans showed up, and students in particular did not come, with exams ending the day before. But PC's fan base made its presence known at the 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena. With a vast number of empty seats in the USC student section, a small group of about 20 Presbyterian students were able to set up in the opposing student section and root for the Blue Hose.
The game started out well for Presbyterian. South Carolina chose not to start two-sport star Bruce Ellington, and this took away the Gamecocks' speed advantage. The Blue Hose were able to play their slow tempo game and beat the Gamecocks with good shooting and defense. Presbyterian led 25-19 at halftime, and it looked as if PC was heading for another RLU and South Carolina was going to give one up again.
But after being rested early in the game, Ellington was ready in the second half to make the Blue Hose run, and this opened up the talent advantage that the SEC team had. The Gamecocks went on a 14-0 run to take a ten-point lead midway through the second half. The Gamecocks finally started to hit their shots while the Blue Hose struggled. Yet PC would fight to the end and lose 66-58, a respectable accomplishment for Division I's smallest school.
Some schools do not survive the transition. Winston-Salem State decided after transitioning to the MEAC that Division I was not the place to be and returned to the CIAA and Division II. One of my favorite games I attended was when the Rams won their final game in Division I at the buzzer against SC State. It actually ended with a win for them.
Who knows how PC will do once it finally breaks through into full-time Division I status. But everyone has to respect the struggles it has had as a transitional school in its fifth year, where pride and respect are the only things it has to play for.
Photos of the game can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/59345354@N00/sets/72157628416123805
at SOUTH CAROLINA 66, PRESBYTERIAN 58 12/13/2011
PRESBYTERIAN 4-5 (1-1) -- K. Mutakabbir 6-11 0-0 15; J. Johnson 4-8 2-2 13; J. Reynolds 4-7 1-2 9; A. Coleman 4-9 2-4 10; P. Miller 3-6 1-1 8; E. Washington 0-3 2-2 2; J. Clyburn 0-0 0-0 0; R. Hargrave 0-1 0-0 0; R. McTavish 0-0 1-2 1; W. Truss 0-0 0-0 0; T. Deihl 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-45 9-13 58. SOUTH CAROLINA 4-5 (0-0) -- A. Gill 3-6 3-3 10; M. Cooke 5-7 3-3 14; D. Harris 4-6 1-1 9; B. Ellington 6-14 2-4 15; L. Jackson 3-4 0-0 6; E. Smith 0-4 0-0 0; R. Slawson 1-3 0-0 2; B. Richardson 1-4 0-0 2; D. Leonard 3-5 0-0 8; B. Williams 0-3 0-0 0; C. Geathers 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-56 9-11 66.
Three-point goals: PRES 7-18 (J. Johnson 3-7; P. Miller 1-4; R. Hargrave 0-1; K. Mutakabbir 3-4; E. Washington 0-2), SC 5-11 (M. Cooke 1-1; B. Ellington 1-3; B. Richardson 0-1; E. Smith 0-1; A. Gill 1-1; D. Leonard 2-2; B. Williams 0-2); Rebounds: PRES 22 (A. Coleman 6), SC 31 (A. Gill 8); Assists: PRES 13 (E. Washington 6), SC 14 (L. Jackson 3); Total Fouls -- PRES 13, SC 15; Fouled Out: PRES-A. Coleman; SC-None.