A new era: APU finishes transition to NCAA

A new era of Azusa Pacific athletics has begun.

APU found out July 23 its full NCAA Division II membership was approved. The announcement ended a three-year transition process from the NAIA to the more recognized organization. With the approval, the Cougars now have access to full membership privileges, including participating in postseason play.

“This year could prove to be one of the most exciting years we’ve ever had in APU athletics,” said Jackson Stava, assistant athletics director and compliance and academic support officer.

APU spent 48 years in the NAIA. After winning six straight NACDA Directors’ Cup awards (given the school with the most athletic success), the Cougars decided to move forward by beginning the application process to the NCAA. Azusa Pacific left the NAIA with eight Directors’ Cup awards total.

The school officially applied to the NCAA in May 2011 and was approved in July that year. During the first, exploratory year of membership, the Cougars continued to play in the NAIA and won their last Directors’ Cup.

The second year of the application process, 2012-2013, APU started playing a NCAA schedule. The disadvantage of this year was no eligibility for postseason play or awards.

“We usually were playing so hard for something, but this time we knew we were playing really hard and doing the best we could but in the end, we still weren’t going anywhere,” senior softball player Katrina Oviedo said.

The third year, 2013-2014, was a provisional one. During this year, NCAA officials evaluate how the school is conforming to the new rules and regulations and physically visit campus and speak to coaches and athletes to see how all is going. If results are good, the school is recommended for full membership and then accepted formally into the NCAA, which is what happened to Azusa Pacific over the summer.

Between academic years, the school has to be approved to move forward in the process. Stava said the support athletics got from the whole school assured the program of continued progress.

“There were challenges and struggles, but we were never questioning whether we could make it to that next step,” Stava said.

Stava said another motivation to join the NCAA was simply because Azusa Pacific had outgrown the NAIA. The appeal of the NCAA is the brand-name recognition and also the opportunity to reach others with Azusa Pacific’s message.

“We’re APU. We are who we are,” men’s basketball head coach Justin Leslie said. “It doesn’t matter who we play against. If anything, I think it’s a greater platform to go into places where you’re playing schools that are secular or maybe a different faith tradition, and it’s a great opportunity for us to show what’s different in how we compete.”

APU played its first game as an official NCAA member Sept. 4 as the football team faced No. 2-ranked Grand Valley State on national television and won 26-23 in double overtime.

“The win was probably one of the most, if not the most, significant win in the history of APU football because it was a national stage,” Stava said. “It was an opportunity to get the message of Azusa Pacific and Azusa Pacific athletics on a larger scale.”

One of the challenges of being in the NCAA is the immense number of rules that must be followed. Part of the three-year process included educating coaches and athletes on the many NCAA regulations. Coaches’ rule manuals are 247 pages long, not including appendixes. Coaches get tested annually to be allowed to recruit.

“The thing that is most encouraging is knowing that the other teams we’re playing are under the same guidelines,” Leslie said. “That wasn’t always the case in the NAIA. It’s been very refreshing to know that there are parameters.”

Being in the NCAA has allowed coaches to attract a “better student athlete,” according to Stava. Because of new regulations, the Athletics Department has established a stronger academic support and study hall program for its athletes. Leslie said the school is now getting more four-year athletes as opposed to transfers, giving officials the opportunity to get more quality young athletes right out of high school.

“We are more ambitious with high-school kids,” Leslie said. “This has legitimized our Athletics Department. The NCAA logo is something that is a multimillion-dollar brand and people know what it is.”

Stava explained that the move to the NCAA was not just about the athletics; the group established partnerships with various offices on campus so that the move to the NCAA made APU as a better institution as a whole. He said that because of this process, some academic requirements have been adopted for not only athletes but all APU students.

Other changes in this process include more travel time, compliance training, more defined practicing and playing schedules and “a lot more paperwork,” Stava said. Stava’s job with the Athletics Department was created because of this transition.

In terms of cost, the application fee was $33,000, plus $14,900 for the first two years of the process and any other years afterward until accepted into full NCAA membership. Stava said the annual fees are almost the same as the NAIA’s were. In addition, the NCAA pays for postseason travel costs.

Now that the transition stage is over, Stava, the Athletics Department and the institution can get back to focusing on their athletes. But Stava said work is ongoing.

“We just have to maintain the standard of excellence that we’ve established,” he said. “As a school having recently gone through this process, I believe that we are more compliant and probably functioning more as what the NCAA would term a ‘model institution’ than many of the schools that have been doing this a long time.”

As the teams settle into their first year as full NCAA members, Stava wants students to participate.

“I would just encourage the students on campus to, in some ways, be a part of APU history,” he said. “To be able to come back in 20-30 years and say, ‘I was there the first time we did this in the NCAA.’ The first time we have some of those opportunities is going to be a pretty cool thing.”