With little pomp, short speeches and primarily pleasant informal conversation, the University of Central Arkansas celebrated a long-anticipated and dreamed milestone Wednesday afternoon.
Before about 60 faculty, staff and supporters at Buffalo Alumni Hall, Tom Burnett, Southland Conference commissioner, welcomed UCA as an official active member of NCAA Division I. That means the university has completed the five-year transition process and its teams are now fully eligible for championships, the postseason and additional revenue afforded every member in the classification.
"I know this looks a lot shorter process today that it did in 2005," Burnett said. "It seemed a long road then. As a conference, we immediately recognized your potential as a Division-I member. We’ve seen what you have done as a Division-I member already without having that full status. Now that you don’t have a check by your name, I will not be surprised that many of your sports programs will compete at the highest level.
"Already in the transition process, you have made us (the SLC) better and that’s why we added you."
Burnett, who traveled from the SLC offices in the Dallas area to attend the event, said the most frustrating part of the process was when he had to announce that the Bears’ 2008 football team couldn’t be officially recognized by the league as conference champs because of an overlooked NCAA rule that provisional members of a classification could not be officially recognized as champions if the conference designated its champion for its automatic berth in the postseason playoffs.
"That football situation has stuck with me every day since then," Burnett said. "But we’re past that now and you have every privilege every NCAA member has and you get to prove to the NCAA what we as a conference saw in you all along."
Brad Teague, UCA’s athletic director who took over in midstream in the five-year process, thanked former athletic director Vance Strange and associate Darrel Walsh for their work in laying the groundwork at the beginning of the process.
"Then Lu (former university president Hardin) said, ‘Make it happen tomorrow,’ then (faculty member) Roy Whitehead jumped in and really got it going," Teague said. "But everybody ended up contributing from the athletes to the administration and faculty and staff. And if you look at our donors back then and look at the number now, we’ve made a lot of progress."
Noting the process is now just a beginning, president Allen Meadors announced that the University of Central Arkansas Sugar Bear basketball team will host Alabama at the Farris Center in 2011.
"You’re going to see teams you follow on TV come to UCA more and more often," Meadors said. "As soon as we start beating them, it will be really exciting. I know you’re laughing but there will come a day when we’ll be beating those teams. Just ask Michigan’s football team about Appalachian State three years ago."