The fall of 1984 launched the first playing season for the experiment called the North Coast Athletic Conference, a new playing conference in the NCAA’s Division III.
The Conference’s new principles and goals were revolutionary in the conservative world of college athletics at the time. As we mark the NCAC’s 36th year of operation, the Conference, with its strong commitment to equity and excellence, has been a model to change the face of college athletics at all levels in the NCAA. That leadership in the early 1980s has also trickled down and changed the face of sports programs at the high school level.
Most prominent was the NCAC’s stance, written into the preamble of its constitution, that women’s sports would have equity with men’s sports. Except for a few conferences that had just added women’s sports (like the Big Ten in 1983), the NCAC was the first to state that this was a key goal of operation. Hard to believe today, but in 1984, most every conference was setup for men’s college sports only—and then, just for football and men’s basketball. NCAC members withdrew from conferences that resisted adding women’s sports.
"Marquee sports, major and minor sports, revenue-producing sports - all were catchphrases of the early 1980s," said Dennis Collins, the NCAC's Executive Director for its first 25 seasons. "The environment was not only completely different than today, it was openly hostile to women's sports and every sport other than football and men's basketball."
NCAC founders decided that women’s sports and all sports were important to their colleges and stated so in their new constitution (there are now 23 NCAC sports). As a result, the NCAC emphasized all sports, including swimming & diving, soccer, field hockey, and volleyball, in addition to football and men’s basketball. This also was wildly revolutionary. Some of the major results of these decisions were that coaching staffs had to be increased, fields and facilities expanded and the overall budgets of NCAC colleges jumped dramatically. These proactive positions were well ahead of the punitive nature of the Title IX debate, which came in the later 1980s.
College Presidents made these decisions, along with key input from their men’s and women’s athletic administrators and faculty athletic representatives. There is no way these advances could have been made without the commitment of these NCAC presidents.
Presidential leadership was another key principle of the NCAC. This also was rather rare in those days and still is, even today. However, it was the strength of the presidents and their commitment to adding programs, adding budget, and adding facilities, which set the NCAC apart from its competition.
Athletic and Academic Excellence
Athletic and academic excellence have not only survived in the NCAC model, they have prospered. Early skeptics labeled the NCAC non-competitive because of its high academics and new principles. How could academically selective colleges, such as the NCAC members, compete with other conferences and in NCAA Championships?
The answer is 73 NCAA National Championships in 35 playing seasons. Each year the NCAC is strongly represented in NCAA post-season competition.
Whether it is the recent national championships by Denison men's swimming, DePauw women's basketball or Wittenberg volleyball, or the College of Wooster’s baseball and men's basketball teams going to the Division III Championship games or Ohio Wesleyan winning the men’s or women’s national soccer crown, or Allegheny winning the NCAA football title, or Kenyon’s incredible run of national swimming championships, the men's title run broken by Denison after the Lords claimed 31 straight, the proof is there. The NCAC is one of the elite athletic conferences amongst the 44 in NCAA Division III, the association’s largest division.
Consider that in its first six years, the NCAC won national titles in the traditional "power" sports of football (Allegheny, 1990) and men’s basketball (Ohio Wesleyan, 1988).
NCAC men’s and women’s basketball squads have always done well in the national championship series. In addition to Ohio Wesleyan’s men’s title in 1988, both Wittenberg (1994, 2006) and Wooster (2003, 2007, 2011) have advanced to the Division III Final Four. Wittenberg has made more NCAA Tournament appearances than any other school in Division III. The success of Ohio Wesleyan’s women’s squad was indicative of the emergence of that sport in the NCAC, as the Bishops advanced to the Women’s Division III Final Four in 2001. DePauw claimed the NCAC's first national title in women's basketball in 2013.
NCAC swimming and diving has dominated the national scene to an incredible degree. Kenyon College, under legendary coach Jim Steen, was the equivalent, or better, of John Wooden’s UCLA national championship teams in Division I men’s basketball. While Wooden won eight straight NCAA titles, he pales somewhat to Steen’s squads, which racked up 31 straight men’s titles and 23 women’s titles (17 consecutively). Denison broke the Kenyon women's streak in 2001, then ended the Kenyon men's streak in 2011 by one point. The Big Red men earned their second championship in 2012, third in 2016, fourth in 2018 and fifth in 2019; Kenyon has brought their impressive total to 34 with championships in 2013, '14 and '15. Kenyon has also added three national women’s tennis titles to the NCAC’s total of 73 to date.
NCAC soccer has long been amongst the finest in the nation, with Ohio Wesleyan winning the men’s crown in 1998 and 2011. Women’s soccer has developed at a fast pace, with many good teams around the league, as Ohio Wesleyan won two national championships over the past decade.
Over the past 35 years, the NCAC has had great performances from its baseball squads (five in the World Series), men’s and women’s lacrosse teams (in the national title games), and outstanding individual performances from golf, cross country and track stars. Volleyball teams routinely make deep runs into the postseason, including Wittenberg's national championship in 2011 and runner-up finish in 2015 and 2017.
NCAC student-athletes are named to All-America teams on a regular basis, including some earning National Player of the Year honors, such David Fitch of Kenyon in Division III men's swimming in 2019.
Many NCAC coaches have been honored by their peers as National Coach of the Year, including DePauw's Kris Huffman (2013) in women's basketball, Denison's Gregg Parini (2011, 2012, 2016, 2018) in men's swimming, Nan Carney-Debord (2001), former women’s basketball coach at Ohio Wesleyan, and former OWU men’s basketball coach Gene Mehaffey (1988). Both Jay Martin and Bob Barnes of Ohio Wesleyan have also been honored as national soccer coaches of the year, while Kenyon's Jess Book has earned the honor for both men's and women's swimming. And there have been many others in the NCAC’s history. Coaches like Denison’ Keith Piper in football, Kenyon’s Steen and Ohio Wesleyan's Martin are undoubtedly bound for their sport’s respective Halls of Fame.
However, NCAC student-athletes give meaning to the word “student”. They are among the leaders, as a conference, in winning NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarships and in earning berths on the Academic All-America teams sponsored by the College Sports Information Directors Association. The Conference has featured several NCAA Elite 88/89/90 winners, which highlight the student-athlete with the highest G.P.A. participating in a national championship event. Kenyon's Ashley Rowatt was the first Division III student-athlete to win the prestigious NCAA Woman of the Year award (2003); as a conference several of our best female student-athletes have been named finalists for that award over the years.
Beyond the steps taken for equity in athletics and the demonstrated athletic and academic excellence, the NCAC has produced leaders at the NCAA level, which have fought for the Conference’s ideals at the national level.
Six NCAC Presidents have served on the NCAA’s Presidents Council, most recently Tom Chema, former President of Hiram (2011-2014). Two of this group have served as the national chairs of the Presidents Council. Thomas Courtice, President of Ohio Wesleyan, served as chair (2002) to end his four-year tenure (1998-2002) on the Council. His predecessor at OWU, David Warren, also served as chair during his term, 1988-92. This OWU service follows a tradition in the NCAA, with the Reverend Herbert Welch, serving on the founding Executive Committee of the NCAA in 1906, its first year. Wittenberg’s William Kinnison and Michele T. Myers and Dale Knobel of Denison also served on the Council. Wabash's Gregg Hess currently sits on the Division III Presidents Advosiry Group.
Nine NCAC Administrators have served on the NCAA Management Council for Division III, the most notable being Al Van Wie, the retired Wooster athletic director, who also served as an NCAA Vice-President during his tenure, 1986-90. Founding Executive Director Dennis Collins served a four-year term (1992-1996), followed by former Allegheny Associate Athletic Director Maureen Hager (1997-99). Bob Malekoff, the former athletic director at Wooster, served a term and Bob Rosencrans, the former athletic director at Wittenberg, served a partial term in 1992. Garnett Purnell, Director of Athletics at Wittenberg served a four-year term that ended in 2010; and Knobel completed his term in 2012-13. Former Allegheny Athletic Director Portia Hoeg served on the Council as the Vice Chair. DePauw AD Stevie Baker-Watson is a current member of the Management Council.
Professor Jeff Ankrom, one of Wittenberg’s faculty athletic representatives, has been very active on NCAA committees, including a stint as a Vice President of the national Faculty Athletics Representatives Association. Ankromhas also served as the chair of the NCAA DIII Financial Aid Committee. Wittenberg's Wendy Gradwohl finished a stint as the FARA Division III vice president in 2015. The Conference has also been well represented on many national committees, as numerous administrators and coaches have served on sports and legislative committees over the past 32 years.
Participation and Graduation
The bottom line is that the NCAC provides college athletic opportunities for 5,000 student-athletes in 23 sports ‑ without the benefit of a major TV contract, and is funded directly from the regular college budget. Beyond that, NCAC member colleges graduate nearly 85 percent of our student-athletes each year.