ESTERO — After seven years of talks, numerous studies, the addition of three sports, the expansion of facilities to accommodate them and four years of difficult transition while competing in the Atlantic Sun Conference, the NCAA gave Florida Gulf Coast University its final official nod of approval on Thursday, making FGCU a full-fledged member of Division I.
FGCU began as an NAIA program a decade ago before spending four years in Divison II and four years transitioning into Division I. FGCU will officially become a full member of Division I when classes begin Aug. 22.
As of Thursday, it had been 1,917 days since FGCU accepted the Atlantic Sun’s official invitation at a splashy on-campus press conference on May 10, 2006.
“As we’ve seen all the way through the process, everything that we’ve heard from the NCAA gave us no indication that this was nothing more than a formality for the hard work done by a lot of people outside and inside athletics and a lot of great people over the years that sacrificed quite a bit,” FGCU athletic director Ken Kavanagh said.
There was no hoopla Thursday. The official acceptance came in a simple e-mail from Stephen A. Mallonee, the NCAA’s managing director of academic and membership affairs/Division I governornance liason, to FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw.
“It is my pleasure to inform you that the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved the recommendation from the NCAA Division I Administrative Cabinet to elect Florida Gulf Coast University to Division I active membership effective September 1 (or the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year if earlier than September 1),” Mallonee wrote. “Please note that the NCAA membership database will be updated to reflect your Division I status.
“I congratulate you on your successful transition to Division I status and urge your institution to continue strengthening its commitment to meet all applicable Division I membership requirements during the course of the 2011-12 academic year and thereafter.”
There was no suspense over this “formality” at FGCU on Thursday, but there was a sigh of relief that the transition led by three athletic directors — Carl McAloose until he resigned in Oct. 2008 and interim AD Jo-Ann Nester until Kavanagh came on board in June 2009 — a steering committee chaired by Peg Gray-Vickrey, three subcommittees under that and two presidents, Bradshaw and his predecessor, Bill Merwin.
Kavanagh praised the collective efforts before and after his arrival, particularly the work of Bradshaw and Gray-Vickery.
“We deferred to others on campus because it needed to be a broad base of participation,” Kavanagh said. “There were a lot of meetings and was a lot of paperwork. Not only were we required to make sure this was driven by folks outside of athletics but we needed to make sure all the information we were sharing with them was accurate.
“By the time we finished our report in April 2010 and had it submitted at the end of that month, the only thing that took some extra time was when (the NCAA) came in here on Sept. 10 last year.”
Kavanagh said most of the heavy lifting — Years 2 and 3 of the transition — was done by McAloose and Nester, who is now the AD at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.
“As I’ve said many times, I’ve taken over a wonderful situation,” said Kavanagh, who was the AD at Bradley for 13 years before coming to FGCU. “What Carl did in getting this program done and the way he handled it those years and the sacrifices they made really made it attractive to come here.”
Finally, all 14 FGCU sports are eligible for A-Sun and NCAA tournaments and championship meets. For four years, the basketball, golf, soccer, softball and tennis teams could not compete in the conference or national tournaments. Baseball and volleyball, designated as “fast-track” programs, had to sit out only two years. FGCU cross country teams competed in the A-Sun championships, but could advance no further. Same for FGCU’s three-time Coastal Collegiate Swimming Association champion women.
“The coaches, as we all know, who have been here from Day 1 went through a lot of patience of playing games in Puerto Rico and having a hard time getting home games ... and then when we were doing so well (in D-II) in the beginning, not really getting a maybe a fair shake in regards to NCAA opportunities,” Kavanagh said. “Now the sacrifices have been made.”