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A ticket out of the minors


It would be nice if PaeTecPark attracts Major League Soccer and makes Rochester a major-league city. Unfortunately, US soccer will probably never be "major league." MLS won't draw much more national interest than the Rhinos, and its long-term viability is uncertain.

            Our real ticket out of the minor leagues is NCAA Division I athletics.

            The Rochester area is home to nine four-year colleges, and not one of them is Div. I. Rochester's metropolitan area is larger than more than half of the 327 Div. I schools' metro areas. That includes six of the last 10 men's basketball champions.

            There is major national interest in Div. I athletics. A program could help nationally publicize Rochester and its strong educational background.

A Div. I program would also inject some much-needed egotism here. We need to stop feeling honored that the PGA and the Buffalo Bills would ever bequeath our little old city with their presence, and start acting like they're lucky to be here. We need some metro arrogance. A good Div. I program is the prescription.

In December, Syracuse and St. Bonaventure played a men's basketball game at Blue Cross Arena, and 11,456 seats sold out in 75 minutes. Rochester is starved for major college sports, and that game proved it, says Lary Bump, Rochester Area College Athletic Services executive director. RACA promotes local college athletics.

            "There would certainly be an exposure benefit to having a top Div. I program," Bump says. "Soccer is just not going to have the same media exposure. You won't see the highlights on SportsCenter."

            Bump has covered Rochester athletics for more than three decades as a freelancer and Democrat & Chronicle sports writer. Rochester Institute of Technology, he says, would be the best Div. I candidate because it has the area's largest undergraduate enrollment. It also has academic programs that could accommodate student athletes. RIT has nearly twice the enrollment of Rochester's second-largest college, SUNY Brockport, and has a slightly larger enrollment than SyracuseUniversity.

            But the move to Div. I is costly. NorthernKentuckyUniversity, just outside Cincinnati, is a Div. II program considering moving up. Officials have assessed an annual cost of $3 million to operate a program. For a Div. III school like RIT, it would likely be considerably more expensive because of the bigger jump.

            RIT, however, is not exactly financially struggling. Later this year, it's opening a $25 million field house that will be MonroeCounty's second-largest indoor venue.

So going Div. I would be a matter of priorities. And because I've stated a most compelling argument, I'm convinced it's the priority.

            I envision that when RIT wins the men's basketball Div. I national championship, I'll be publicly exalted and inducted into the Frontier Field Walk of Fame.

But then I talk to Lou Spiotti, director of RIT's Center for Human Performance, which oversees the athletic program.

            "It would be great for fans and great for Rochester --- the excitement of major sports," Spiotti says.

            He's building me up to let me down easy, like I'm one of those guys on The Bachelorette, and he is... um... Meredith?!? On second thought, scratch the comparison.

            "We've chosen academic integrity," he says, "and we want to keep the athletic program in perspective. We've strictly made a philosophical choice."

            Spiotti adds the problems in Div. I --- highlighted by scandals at Baylor, Georgia, St. John's University, Colorado, and St. Bonaventure --- are getting worse. I suggest that problems affected fewer than five percent of Div. I schools. He says that's the tip of the iceberg.

            Overall, Spiotti is disturbed by what he sees as Div. I's lack of institutional control. He cites Bobby Knight managing to remain Texas Tech coach, despite publicly accosting the school's president during the season. He cites how Div. I coaches make exorbitant amounts of money, typically more than college presidents. He cites alumni pressure.

             "Sports is a vehicle for young people to develop character and integrity," he says. "I look at [the NCAA tournament] and wonder whether the young people are going to class and how many are going to graduate."

            That's a noble philosophy. In Rochester, we seem to hold onto our philosophies.

Kodak believed in film, instead of digital technology. Xerox believed in copiers, instead of modern computing developed at its Palo Alto Research Center.

            Obviously, philosophies sometimes need changing for the good of the community. This is a team-effort.

So come on RIT, take one for the team.