Sept. 10, 2012


Northern Kentucky begins Division I era


By Phil Stanton Co-Founder


HIGHLAND 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.


The 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 Draft.


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.”


Schools 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 conference schedule.


NKU has not had a difficult time filling its non-conference slate.


“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 Atlantic Sun.


“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.”


NKU 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 with recruiting.”


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.”


There are a lot of positives with moving to Division I, but hardships as well.


“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 academic year.


NKU does have some work to do in terms of facilities.


“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 fence.


“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)