The NCAA is on the verge of going international. By supporting a change in constitutional language, the NCAA's Executive Committee paved the way for SFU, located in Burnaby, B.C., to become the first member from outside the U.S. to join the American college sports governing body.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic to be the first Canadian school to join the NCAA and to give our student-athletes the opportunity to compete against the best programs in the United States and Canada," said Milton Richards, Simon Fraser's senior director of athletics and recreation.
All it will take now is a vote from the Division II President's Council next Thursday. If approved, Simon Fraser could be playing games as of Sept. 1 as an NCAA member.
SFU has competed in NCAA for the past three years as part of a 10-year pilot program for Canadian schools, but the Clan was prohibited from competing for national championships because of its provisional status. SFU teams could only advance as far as conference championships.
It's the first time since the NCAA adopted the 10-year pilot program for Canadian schools that a university has moved this close to full NCAA membership.
"The biggest thing this means is that our student-athletes can have all the full rights and privileges of being a member of the NCAA," said Richards.
Last year, the Simon Fraser men's soccer team was ranked No. 1 in the NCAA, but it could not compete for a national title. Meanwhile, some SFU teams in other sports, like women's swimming squad, were not allowed to be ranked. The provisional status also denied athletes all-America awards.
Richards said the pending full status will greatly enhance recruiting efforts. NCAA student-athletes are eligible for athletic scholarships whereas Canadian student-athletes receive other, more limited forms of financial assistance.
"It means we can go out and get the best student-athletes in the world and offer them a scholarship," he said.
In the past, he said, some athletes chose CIS schools over Simon Fraser for the chance to compete for national titles. Simon Fraser, which has teams in 17 sports, will compete in Division II, because the NCAA will not allow it to enter teams in Division I.
But Richards said the university will not add new sports as a result of the decision.
"We have 17 and you only need 10 to be a Division II member," he said. "I really don't see us adding any more programs."
Consequently, Simon Fraser will continue to go without a hockey program for the foreseeable future. Since Division II schools do not compete in hockey, Simon Fraser would have to petition the NCAA to gain entry to Division I, he said. Although Division III schools compete in hockey, Division II schools are not permitted to ice teams at the lower level.
"Hockey is a different issue," said Richards, adding Simon Fraser will gauge interest in setting up a hockey program.
The governing body's decision to go outside the U.S. promises to expand NCAA membership, provide more dues money to the NCAA, pave the way for more international schools to join the organization and allow the NCAA to extend its reach beyond the American borders — as Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL have already done.
SFU women's basketball coach Bruce Langford said his team, perennially one of the best in Canada, now has a chance to gain recognition for success that it has had in the U.S.
"Last year, being on probation, we had some pretty big wins and upset some highly-ranked teams," he said. "We never really had a sense of how that stood in comparison to all of the Division II leagues. We did make the playoffs locally, but then we couldn't move out of those playoffs. So that (NCAA decision) is going to give us the chance to do that this year."
Langford said his players will also benefit from increased competition.
"The league we're in now is tougher day to day," said Langford. "It's more competitive. We have to show up. If you don't show up, you're going to pay for it. There were certainly many nights in the CIS, in our league, where it was hard to motivate players. They'd beat the (other) team quite a bit, and the next time we played them, (SFU players) had to dig deep within themselves to get themselves motivated. ... That doesn't happen (in the NCAA), because the bottom end is quite higher than the bottom end in the CIS.
"At the top end, there are certainly more good teams, because there are so many good teams in Division II."
Although it may sound phony, SFU players also feel they are representing Canada every time they are playing American schools.
"We are referred to as the Canadians," he said. "We are the unique different piece. We are the only NCAA school that's not in the United States of America, so everywhere we go, we seem to be uniquely different. So we're always carrying that on our shoulders, and I think the kids like that burden."
Langford said exposure to higher levels of competition could also help develop more Olympians.
"The heart of the kid and roar of the lion inside of them is going to be the thing that's going to determine whether they make it (to the Olympics), but our piece certainly is good to help push them."
B.C. Lions centre Angus Reid, an SFU alumnus, said it's great that Canadian student-athletes will be able to get an excellent education at home and compete at what is regarded as the highest level in North America.
"It's going to be a hard road (for the SFU football team against NCAA competition), but anything great doesn't come easy," said Reid, whose SFU team competed in the NAIA. "But I think it's a worthwhile, vicious fight to take it on, go out there and do what you have to do to be able to compete, raise the level of football in Canada, and show the kids in our country that you can stay in our country and still compete with the best."
However, Lions general manager Wally Buono does not necessarily see a benefit for CFL teams recruiting Canadian talent.
"I don't know if it hurts us, other than the fact that SFU probably now will be recruiting Americans to play for SFU in the NCAA," he said. "It's going to give less opportunity for Canadians."
Buono predicted SFU will recruit Americans in order to be able to compete in the NCAA. He recalled that SFU recruited south of the border when it played in the NAIA in the 1970s and 1980s. SFU's move to the NCAA could prompt other schools in Eastern Canada, like Acadia in Nova Scotia and Bishop's in Quebec, to move to the U.S. circuit because they are located near the Canada-U.S. border.
Canadian university football coaches have complained about discrepancies in funding and competition levels among schools north of the border, but CIS rules require that schools include all of their sports in the Canadian organization or leave them all out.
Buono sees more athletes having an opportunity to compete in other sports at a higher level, but he is not sure what the benefits are for SFU's football program, because it will be a long time before the Clan can excel against top American schools on the gridiron.
The Executive Committee voted Wednesday to also include Mexican schools for NCAA consideration. The expansion to Mexico could begin as early as next year if the Division II presidents approve the proposal next week.
The holdup has been accreditation.
Current rules require all NCAA schools to be accredited by a U.S. agency.
Division II presidents want the language changed to also include schools in good standing in their own nation's accreditation program and has applied to one of six American accreditation agencies for approval in the U.S. The Executive Committee voted to support the change.
Richards stressed that Simon Fraser still wants to compete against Canadian schools. As a result, Simon Fraser will compete against Canadian schools in non-conference games and other events.
-- With files from the Associated Press