RIT Explores Jump to D-I, Atlantic Hockey

Atlantic Hockey will vote on Wednesday whether or not to expand from its current membership and, if so, which members will be accepted. The vote will be part of a meeting of the league’s athletic directors in Albany, N.Y.

Among those rumored to be considered for acceptance into the league include Robert Morris, Air Force and Niagara, all current members of College Hockey America, and one major surprise: current Division III powerhouse Rochester Institute of Technology.

Though commissioner Bob DeGregorio could not specifically say that RIT would or would not be a member, he acknowledged their application, and noted there would be more than one team involved.

RIT today confirmed its interest in joining the conference.

“We are looking at hockey, as we have looked at hockey in the past, as a flagship program, and asked the question as to whether we think it might be best to take our program to the Division I level,” said Lou Spiotti, director of RIT’s Center for Intercollegiate Athletics and Recreation. However, Spiotti stressed that plans to move the program to Division I are “very preliminary.”

“We’re now exploring the possibility and what associations would be out there for us to be connected with that would be enhancing for the program and the university,” said Spiotti. “And [Atlantic Hockey] is one of them. We’ve made inquiries, sent some correspondence to them, and expressed an interest in them, and they’ve expressed an interest in us.”

As a Division III program, RIT would have to make some major changes, beginning with reclassifying its men’s ice hockey program to Division I within the NCAA. To be eligible for Division I in the 2006-07 season, that application would need to be made to the NCAA by June 30, 2005.

After that, if accepted, the school would remain a Division III program for the 2005-06 season, and then in 2006-07 could join a Division I conference. In year two, though, the team would be ineligible for the NCAA tournament. By year three of reclassification, RIT would be a full-fledged member of any Division I conference.

If there is a move to Division I in hockey for the Tigers, it likely would be part of an overall elevation of athletics at RIT. “We are exploring the possibility of doing some new and exciting things with our athletic program as part of a campus-wide strategic initiative to raise the profile of the university,” said Spiotti.

The initiative, which also includes plans to expand research and add doctoral programs, is spearheaded by RIT President Albert Simone, a former president at Division I University of Hawaii. During Simone’s 12-year tenure, RIT’s enrollment has increased by more than twenty-five percent to over 15,000; the university plans to cap enrollment at 17,000 students by 2010.

An upgrade in athletic programs would also include further improvements to RIT’s facilities, which in the past several years have included the construction of an 8,200-seat field house, a new all-weather practice field, improvements to its outdoor stadium, and renovations to its hockey venue, the 2,100-seat Frank Ritter Memorial Arena.

Spiotti said that facility upgrades would as a necessity come with a higher-profile athletic program. “You really need to do those things to be competitive and attractive,” said Spiotti.

RIT is coached by Wayne Wilson, a captain of Bowling Green’s 1984 national championship squad under current Boston College coach Jerry York, and a long-time assistant coach at his alma mater. In five seasons at RIT, Wilson’s teams have made four NCAA appearances, including as national runner-up in 2001, and have amassed a 103-21-11 record.

Should RIT opt to move its men’s hockey program to Division I without moving all sports to that level, it would not be able to offer athletic scholarships.

If accepted, RIT could help alleviate the scheduling burden that Robert Morris, a new Division I program beginning this season, would bring into the league. Currently only two teams are located significantly west of New England: Mercyhurst in Erie, Penn., and Canisius in Buffalo, N.Y. Adding Robert Morris, based in Pittsburgh, alone would force teams to make an extra trip west, often times for only one game. This addition could pair Mercyhurst with Robert Morris and Canisius with RIT.

All of the discussion of expanded membership is fueled a bit by the imminent departure of current member Quinnipiac. The Bobcats will leave Atlantic Hockey after the 2004-05 season for the ECAC, replacing Vermont which will move to Hockey East.

As for other potential Atlantic Hockey members, Niagara and Air Force have long been rumored as potential members for the conference. Niagara was once voted for admittance when the teams were under the leadership of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, but the school decided to remain in the CHA when it was ruled that the conference could receive an NCAA autobid three years ago.

But now, with the likely departure of Robert Morris, a team that many felt only plugged a hole for one year in CHA that was left when Findlay disbanded its program at the end of last season, the potential that the CHA will once again fall below the required six teams by the NCAA is quite possible. Thus a school like Niagara could also been seen as a potential fit for departure and Atlantic Hockey could be a desired home.

As for Air Force, the Colorado-based school is currently on the slate of most every Atlantic Hockey team. Including in-season tournaments, Air Force could play six of the current nine Atlantic Hockey members.

All of this, though, is still up for debate and will not be finalized until after the athletic directors vote on Wednesday.

“We have a lot of things to cover tomorrow,” said DeGregorio. “It will be a very interesting day.”