A friend, who recently added Dr. to his title, talked about working on his dissertation.

It can often be tortuous, he said. There are a lot of technicalities to be aware of, many hoops to jump through. 

There is a high degree of frustration in the process but great joy from the accomplishment.

That’s kind of like what University of Central Arkansas officials have gone through in the five-plus-years process on the way to the institution’s official welcome last week into NCAA Division I as an active, full-fledged member.

The actual transition process from NCAA Division II to Division I (Football Championship Subdivision) began five years ago with a series of regular benchmarks to meet and strategic plans to approved at scheduled evaluation periods and checkpoints. That spanned the administrations of two athletic directors (Vance Strange and Brad Teague) and two presidents (Lu Hardin and Allen Meadors). 

The research actually began when Winfred L. Thompson was president and Bill Lide was athletic director. Fuel was added and the process was put into high gear under Hardin, who started the official process shortly before an NCAA moratorium on movement. It was obvious to all that Hardin was determined to make it happen and would spin the research to support his ambitions. He led UCA across the Rubicon with shaky longterm financial support (the total actual costs were lowballed, something the university would pay a price for later).

But Hardin set the process in motion, developed the connections and the relationships that led UCA into the Southland Conference. 

And, although there are a few scars (it’s almost impossible to emerge unscathed), the dream is a reality. In fact, UCA passed almost every test with flying colors.

It’s a credit to UCA officials that the mission was accomplished when there was an administration change in both the presidency and with the athletic director during the middle of the process.

And the process?

Most of what happened developed off the field — in offices and meeting rooms.

The key to the process were detailed self-studies, financial and compliance audits, annual reports on compliance and strategic plans and passing a thorough certification process that will happen every 10 years.

What some people didn’t realize was the process didn’t just involve the success of athletes on the field or courts but their academic support, their personal well-being while in school, their relationship faculty and staff and how they are being led and inspired to obtaining degrees and becoming quality citizens.

It was a tedious, grind-it-out process with associate athletic directors Darrell Walsh and Natalie Shock doing a lot of unexciting, behind-the-scenes detail work.

"As far as administration, the most difficult part of the process was making sure every form was filled out correctly and every one of a set of rules, regulations and compliance issues was followed to a T," Teague said. "We had make sure all the processes and procedures and everything that had to be done got done and was done the right way.

"The most difficult part, from a sports perspective, was being patient and trying to be competitive while taking the hits in recruiting, particularly with no postseason competition during the mandatory transition period. It was almost a stigma. You were there, but not quite there."

Active Division I status means that UCA is now entitled to full priviledges and benefits as an NCAA member, which includes the opportunity for official conference championships, the postseason and revenue resulting from NCAA contracts and shared television money. It also means UCA athletes and teams can officially be ranked and included in statistical categories. As a transitional member, UCA couldn’t be ranked in some NCAA statistics and polls and top performers couldn’t be recognized as national leaders.

Teague admits it was often a hard, frustrating process that had its down moments.

The biggest one was when UCA’s football team posted a 6-1 record in its second full year in the Southland Conference, a game ahead of every other team. However, the Bears learned toward the end of the season that the SLC couldn’t recognize the Bears as official champions or give them a trophy because of an NCAA technicality that prevented a conference from having an automatic berth in the NCAA playoffs if it awarded its championship to a provisional team.

At the last minute, UCA saw a rug pulled out from under it. The Bears were denied something they had earned on the field by a questionable administrative procedure.

"There were some hard times mentally and emotionally and that may have been the hardest," Teague said.

By going through the detailed process, UCA officials may be more aware of how to navigate the labyrinth of NCAA rules and procedures more than some folks at other schools that have been Division I members a long time.

"At the end of the day, I think we all learned a lot," Teague said.

Now, UCA athletes can achieve anything offered any full NCAA member. Being a full member of D-I will often up further possibilities as far as scheduling and money games. Some teams have a policy or an unstated procedure of not scheduling transitional teams.

"We have no excuses now," Teague said. "But I think all our coaches and student-athletes should be excited."

The shackles are off. The Bears can run at full speed.

(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)