Sept. 10, 2012
Northern Kentucky begins
Division I era
By Phil Stanton
HEIGHTS, Ky. – Several schools have elevated to NCAA
Division I status in recent years, including Nebraska-Omaha, SIU
Edwardsville, Bryant and Seattle. Joining the ranks this season
is Northern Kentucky University.
The school is located in Highland Heights, Ky.,
just south of Cincinnati. It was founded in 1968. There are
nearly 16,000 students, with close to 2,000 living on campus.
The Norse enjoyed much success in Division II,
winning national championships in men’s soccer in 2010 and in
women’s basketball in both 2000 and 2008.
NKU baseball program has had its share of success as well. Todd
Asalon (left) is in his 13th season as head coach of the Norse.
He has posted a record of 434-272-1 with seven NCAA Tournament
appearances. NKU was 36-22 this past season, including 25-11 in
the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Norse went 1-2 in the
NCAA tourney. Asalon has had 10 players selected in the MLB
Asalon is also an alum of NKU. He played for the
Norse from 1980-83 and was a three-year starter at catcher.
Asalon was All-Region in 1981 and a team captain as a junior and
senior. He returned to campus as an assistant coach from
1991-94. Asalon compiled a record of 144-92 in six years at head
coach at Thomas More College in nearby Crestview Hills, Ky.,
before returning to NKU as head coach in 2000.
You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to
become Division I. For Northern Kentucky, it was a process that
took more than 10 years.
“I got here in 2001 and they did a study close to
there and said we’re not quite ready for Division I,” Asalon
said. “We brought an outside group in and did a case study. We
were lacking some facilities. We said OK and we took that and
ran with it and made some improvements. The budget had to get
better. Everything had to get better.
“Five years later, around 2006, we did another
study and we were there. We built the Bank of Kentucky Center,
which was almost done. We had plans for the soccer facility. The
budget was better. Being a state school, we got funded better.
At that point, we decided that now is the time to do it. We felt
good about it. We were a little bit unsure. But then they put
that moratorium on and we had to wait four more years. It’s been
about a 10-year process. During that moratorium we were able to
finish off the Bank of Kentucky Center, a $70 million deal, $10
million soccer complex, did tennis courts, did more dorms.
Everything got better. We were ready as a university, up to 16
to 17,000 students. We added sports. We needed to get invited to
a conference, then the ASun came in and here we are today.”
now must have a conference affiliation before elevating to
Division I. NKU had several options, but joined the Atlantic Sun
Conference. Northern Kentucky will compete with East Tennessee
State, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State,
Lipscomb, Mercer, North Florida, South Carolina Upstate and
Stetson. Belmont left the ASun this year to join the Ohio Valley
Conference, so the Norse will replace the Bruins in the
NKU has not had a difficult time filling its
“It was pretty easy,” Asalon said. “Midweek games
we have Cincinnati, Ohio State, Ball State, all local schools.
We’ve got some further drives but they’ve been pretty nice about
trying to get us on their schedule. I didn’t realize that D-I
schedule way out in advance, so I’m trying to get some more
games. We have Kentucky in 2014, and I want to try to get Wright
State, Xavier, Miami of Ohio. In time, we’ll get those guys.”
Asalon will have to deal with added costs for
travel, as Northern Kentucky is the northern-most school in the
“It’s been a surprise how much money it’s going
to cost,” Asalon said. “For us to go to Florida, we play there
three times, so we have to fly three times. Opening two weekends
we’re going to Texas, so we have to fly there too. It’s going to
be costly. It’s going to be more fundraising. We have to tighten
the belt a bit. You have to do it.”
will not be behind for long in terms of scholarships. Division
II can offer a maximum of nine scholarships, while Division I
peaks at 11.7.
“We were always a bit short,” Asalon said about
NKU’s time in Division II. “Next year we’ll be fully funded. You
have to be fully funded to compete. Facilities need to be good
but I’d rather have more scholarship money and less facilities.
Our administration understands the importance of scholarships.
They get it. It’s about going out and getting players and you
have to have a carrot to dangle and that carrot is money. Kids
want and need scholarship money. They knew going in that we
needed to be fully funded and we needed one year to ramp up to
be fully funded. We knew that going in as well.”
There has also been a change in the recruiting
process for NKU.
“It’s funny, recruiting is easier,” Asalon said.
“Everybody wants to play Division I. A lot more doors open up, a
lot more people want to talk with you when you’re Division I.
The pool’s bigger. I’ve got to travel more. You have to get out
there and find the best player you can get. It has to be a good
fit academically, it has to be a good fit baseball-wise and
socially, they have to like the area. It’s a three-prong attack
And you have to educate those recruits not
familiar with your school.
“I’ve gone to different places now,” Asalon said,
“recruiting in New York, New Jersey, up and down the East Coast
and down in Florida, because that’s our home base for our
conference. I’m trying to get our name out there. I’m been all
those places a lot of times. I think the word is going to get
out. We pulled in two from Florida this year, three from New
Jersey. Word of mouth gets out, kids talk to their friends,
their summer kids, their buddies. It’s a matter of time. But
people hadn’t really heard of Northern Kentucky.”
are a lot of positives with moving to Division I, but hardships
“The biggest challenge without a doubt has been
the probation we’re on, going into the four-year probation,”
Asalon said. “It’s tough for me, too, because I’ve been to
postseason [many times]. That’s been hard. Kids want to play for
championships and I don’t hide the fact that we’re on probation.
That’s been tough. That’s been tough to overcome. We have to
find kids who love it here and are willing to be part of
history, be the first D-I program. It’s for only one year. Their
fourth year they get a chance to play. That’s been our biggest
obstacle and other schools use that against us.”
The Norse will not be able to compete for ASun
tournament titles or NCAA Tournament berths until the 2016-17
NKU does have some work to do in terms of
“They’re getting ready to make a pretty good
change,” Asalon said. “In the middle of October, we’ll put turf
in the infield. They’ll move the field out 20 to 30 feet, move
the fence back, turf the infield, all new fencing. That will be
for this year. Phase 2 will be new dugouts, grandstand and
lights to finish off the project. Being in the Atlantic Sun, you
need to upgrade. They don’t play on baseball fields in the ASun,
everything’s a stadium. Everything’s first class and that’s how
it’s got to be. If they want me to compete and win they have to
give me a chance.”
The field is named the Bill Aker Baseball
Complex, after the founder of the NKU baseball program. His
jersey is retired and his No. 42 is displayed on the outfield
“Bill Aker was the first coach here,” Asalon
said. “I’m No. 2. As soon as I won my first game, I was the
second winningest coach here. I played for Bill. We became very
close friends. He was my son’s godfather and Bill’s wife Joan is
Anthony’s godmother. We lost Bill last March to lung disease. He
was 72. He’s getting inducted this year into the ABCA Hall of
Fame up in Chicago.
“We were very close. I played for him and coached
with him. When another job came open he made sure I got it. When
he retired he made sure I came back and got his job. A great
person in my life, a mentor and one of my best friends.
“He started this thing from scratch. He went to
the bookstore, the student center, trying to get people to play
baseball. ‘Hey, I got a uniform. We’ve got a game. Come on and
play.’ That’s how he started it. He wasn’t always fulltime here.
He worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer and part-time came up here
and got this thing started. They made him full-time and he won
800+ games. Everyone loved him. We miss him.”
(photos courtesy of NKU Media Relations Office)