For a very short period of time about a month ago, New Jersey Institute of Technology ruled the sports world. The men’s basketball team shocked Michigan in Ann Arbor, an upset many said was on par only with something Gardner Webb had done at Rupp Arena about 10 years ago. The Highlanders and coach Jim Engles were giant killers, albeit without a conference, the only school of over 300 who played man’s basketball who were still “independent.’ This would be a nice call to action, some said, for the Newark school to finally get into a league after years of toiling alone and in another far off conference now gone the way of the buffalo (and not The University of Buffalo, also once an independent now playing in the Mid America Conference). However this has been the season of the “mid-major” upset, as witnessed by schools like Yale beating Connecticut, Lehigh winning at Arizona State, Incarnate Word stunning Nebraska and on and on. Michigan has had a few other losses and is long gone for now from the Top 25. While the Highlanders win is still a great one, it was one stop on a journey which has seen them bounce from city to city, play in their still-too small but improved arena as they struggle to figure out what’s next. Led by athletics director Lenny Kaplan, NJIT has knocked on every door with a possible fit, but they have not found a suitable fulltime dance partner not just for men’s basketball, but for all their intercollegiate sports for both men and women.
Now the quest for schools relatively new to Division I to find a suitable partner is certainly not new, and not all that unusual. For decades in and out of New Jersey universities looking to use athletics as a way to raise awareness, donations, enrollment, and brand have done all sorts of things to make themselves attractive to league partners. Monmouth College (now Monmouth University) made the jump in the late ‘80’s, eventually landing in the MAAC for all sports except football, where they play in the Big South. With the ever-rising demo of the Jersey Shore, an idyllic West Long Branch campus, a very strong dollar commitment that eventually led to a new arena not just for hoops but for other events, the school played the athletic card really well. Eventually aligning itself for all sports not just with like-minded athletic programs but with like-minded academic institutions as well. They have been readily competitive and sometimes highly successful in almost every sport, and now are even taking one step further to ratchet up their football program to the point where they can nab a guarantee game or two for large dollars against an even larger institution. Success at a steady pace, with a large dollar spend on facilities, has led to the Hawks growing overall as a University.
However NJIT and its model are totally different. An urban school with already high academics and even a global student body attracted to the sciences not far from New York, their athletics faces a larger uphill battle. Monmouth, or even a school like Rider, had a tradition of winning at smaller levels, and had built a reputation for some success hand in hand with academics. NJIT, not really. The Highlanders are probably much closer to a school like St. Peter’s College, the Jesuit school of New Jersey, with its limited budget but successful athletic program and a longtime member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The Peacocks enjoy some success, but have never been a massive draw at the Yantelli Center. Football came and went for the school, and they now exist within the confines of understanding how and what they can be successful at with a solid core of student-athletes looking ti use athletics as a way to further a career when their playing days are over.
The question then becomes what can NJIT do to make themselves more attractive to leagues that already may have their like-minded schools and no need to share a piece of the pie with another school. What’s the upside? After all if I’m a coach or an administrator in the MAAC, or the America East or the Northeast Conference or even the Patriot League, do I want to bring in a program so similar to us that it can dilute recruiting, put some other potential losses on the schedule and not help the bottom line for athletic careers? Some of the best pieces the school can bring to the table are actually away from the playing field, at least at first. NJIT’s student body is diverse, its academics are very strong, it is located in an urban area and has thrived, and it can help lift the profile of like-minded institutions looking to balance academics and athletics. It has the potential…at least, of hosting major events because of its proximity to the Prudential Center and to Eagles-Bears Stadium, a white elephant and former home of the Newark Bears. It has shown a penchant for upgrading its other facilities to also make it attractive and show that the University is willing to invest in athletic infrastructure on par with other schools. And if successful in men’s hoops, it can potentially help bring in added dollars with revenue-generating games and somewhere down the line that elusive second at-large bid that mid-majors crave for exposure and income. Just maybe.
Are there examples of schools who have made themselves attractive enough to raise funds for athletic growth and then jumped to a conference outside of New Jersey? Sure. One that comes to mind is the University of Hartford, which, when it went to Division I in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s, played many of tis games at the then-Hartford Civic Center, and tied several elite games to concerts to raise awareness and draw in larger crowds. That exposure and willingness to promote helped raise the funds to build an on-campus arena and eventually get the school in America East, where they have had some success and are a solid member in all sports, which, is the goal for NJIT as well.
So where to go from here? Can the University deflect more dollars into marketing and promotions to fill their small gym consistently but also drum up enough support to create a bigger game atmosphere on occasion at The Pru? Can they find a large name school or two willing to risk playing them? Is there a way to sue all their other sports to draw attention and success and tell amazing stories of academic and athletic balance to a larger audience, like MIT did with their successful football program this past fall? Can they become enough of a great story on the field and in the classroom that makes a league want to add them in the near future? Is the risk they have taken even worth it at this point? One thing is for sure; at least in hoops their program has rattled the cage at least temporarily. Is it a loud enough noise to make a difference for the bottom line for the long term? That remains to be seen. It seems like there is some potential there, and the numbers in terms of academics and athletics make them worthy of league inclusion. Re those numbers enough to create change in mid-major leagues averse to making moves? Is there some sort of marketing dollar inclusion that makes the school a must have when the next round of changes come at the NCAA level? Is it best for NJIT to go back to the model of an NYU, which looked at a move up when sports came back only to stay at the Division III level?
All of that remains to be seen as the world of college athletics rotates once again, and maybe makes a stop in Newark, a city looking to rise with an institution on the uptick.