D-I transition: Northern Kentucky

By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau

Northern Kentucky University had a built-in advantage before it even considered the idea of moving from NCAA Division II to D-I: It’s located right in the middle of an area that has a long list of desirable athletic opponents.

But NKU officials went one step further. They built a state-of-the-art, 9,400-seat arena that opened in 2008, three years before the Board of Regents voted to make the move up in classification.

“The university put a lot of time and thought into it (going D-I),” said Ken Bothof, who left the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay to take over as director of athletics at NKU late last summer.

Of the arena, he said: “From a mid-major standpoint, I would say it’s one of the most beautiful arenas in the country. It has padded seats, suites, a party deck. It’s viewed on campus and in the area as more of a regional facility. We bring in a lot of concerts and things like that.”

When it completes the D-I transition process in two years, Northern Kentucky has a realistic chance of getting some big-name programs to come to its place to play, not just because of the possibility of increased ticket revenue but also because the university sits just outside Cincinnati, Ohio. That puts a plethora of big-name athletic programs within a bus ride or short plane flight.

Bothof said he is hopeful of having a Big 12 Conference team come to town next season, but for now NKU’s teams still will have to do a lot of traveling. At least the travel isn’t too difficult: Two of its men’s basketball opponents next season will be the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University.

Another challenge for NKU is that it still is, essentially, a commuter school. Only about one-quarter of the students live in the immediate vicinity of campus, and Bothof said weekday events tend to draw better than those on weekends.

“I would say that we’re more of a suitcase college – our students go home on weekends,” he said.

Here are some other items of interest about NKU:

Location, location, location

It’s in Highland Heights, Ky., just seven miles outside Cincinnati. See if this sounds familiar: They have built (or are in the process of erecting) a bunch of new facilities – student union, arena, tennis complex and tech center, and are tripling the size of their recreation center – but they’re running out of land.

“Every time we build a new building, we’re eating a parking lot,” NKU's assistant sports information director, Mike Anderson, said.

For example, the rec center expansion has forced people in the athletic department to park farther away. “Not a big deal, but it can be a problem when there’s six inches of snow on the ground,” Anderson said.

History lesson

Opened in 1948 in Covington, Ky., as the University of Kentucky’s Northern Extension Center, and 20 years later it broke off from UK to become Northern Kentucky State College. It then became a university in 1976.

Campus life

Ranks third in the greater Cincinnati area – behind the University of Cincinnati and Miami University but ahead of Xavier University – with 15,405 students. But only about 2,000 live on campus and another 2,000 live nearby in apartments.


Northern Kentucky moved from the Great Lakes Valley Conference, which Anderson calls the “SEC of D-II,” to the Atlantic Sun Conference when it went D-I in 2012. That has meant more trips to universities in nicer climates but also longer flights to Florida and Georgia rather than bus trips to Indiana and Illinois – plus competition that’s even more challenging.

Among the A-Sun schools are two that made news in the NCAA men's basketball tournament in the last two years: Florida Gulf Coast University, which reached the Sweet 16 in 2013, and Mercer University, which shocked Duke University this year. “It’s starting to make people take a look at A-Sun basketball,” Anderson said. Also, Kennesaw State University of the A-Sun recently stunned the University of Alabama in the NCAA baseball tournament.

Former students of note

Actor George Clooney, who attended Northern Kentucky from 1979 to 1981, is the biggest name, by far. Two former NKU pitchers are on Major League Baseball rosters: Nate Jones of the Chicago White Sox and Josh Lueke of the Tampa Bay Rays.

D-I effect on athletic facilities

Its arena (Bank of Kentucky Center) has plenty of room to accommodate the crowds of 2,000-3,000 NKU has been drawing for men’s basketball (9-21 record last year). The women, who went 8-13, draw about 1,000 per game.

Newsy number

The men’s basketball team played its first 10 games on the road in its first year in D-I and didn’t have a home game until January.

Fun fact

Its nickname for both men’s and women’s teams is the Norse, and the mascot is Victor E. Viking.


Part 1: GCU came up a winner in Year 1 of D-I. Sidebar: Nebraska Omaha.

Part 2: How three veteran coaches approached and managed the first year. Sidebar: University of the Incarnate Word.

Part 3: Antelope athletes talk about what it took to move up to D-I from D-II. Sidebar: Abilene Christian University.

Part 4: GCU isn't the only university trying to establish itself in a competitive sports market. Sidebar: University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Part 5: Changes and challenges often mark the second year of the D-I transition. Sidebar: Northern Kentucky University.

Contact Rick Vacek at 602.639.8203 or [email protected].


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