A kick in the grass: The SUNY-ESF men’s soccer team, along with four other athletic squads, will be playing in a national conference next fall and sporting the nickname Mighty Oaks. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Since 1912, the year after the college was founded, ESF has and continues to field a woodsmen team—now coed—that competes in meets against other colleges in events such as dry land burling, horizontal chop, pole climbing and, of course, ax throwing. But like its other sports programs that have originated through the years, they have only been competing on a club level and were not recognized by any national governing body.
But now that ESF is under the guise of the NAIA, the school will be able to offer students looking to compete in collegiate sports the opportunity to do so. “We’re not getting into athletics to increase our number of students,” said Bob French, vice president of enrollment, management and marketing at ESF. “We feel that we have lost some very good students who have wanted to be student athletes. Our research indicated that 50 percent of all high school students participate in varsity sports and more than 15 percent of college freshmen want to participate on an athletic team in college, and those are pretty big percentages for people we’ve had limited opportunities for.”
The history of the NAIA traces back to 1937 in Kansas City, Mo., when Dr. James Naismith—the inventor of the game of basketball—along with Emil Liston, Frank Cramer and a group of local business leaders formed the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball to stage an eight-team National College Basketball Tournament. In 1948, it was the first national organization to offer intercollegiate postseason opportunities to black student athletes and, in 1953, unprecedented action was taken when historically black institutions were allowed membership. That took place a year after the organization was rechristened the NAIA and expanded to include a variety of sports.
Presently, the NAIA, still headquartered in Kansas City, includes more than 360 colleges situated in 28 member conferences that compete in 23 championship sports—12 for men, 11 for women. Some colleges are independent of conference, as ESF will be. Most schools in the NAIA are smaller colleges like ESF, and other New York colleges including Paul Smith’s, SUNY Canton, Roberts Wesleyan and Houghton.
ESF applied for membership into the NAIA because the NCAA declared a moratorium on adding new schools to their Division III ranks because they have reached maximum operating level with 449 member institutions. Also, to participate in Division III, schools must compete in at least 12 sports, which ESF currently does not. NAIA-recognized sporting programs offered at ESF will be men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country and men’s golf. The decision on what to offer had everything to do with logistics.
“One factor on what sports to offer was that we own no athletic facilities at this time,” said French. “With cross country, for example, those students can train because you can train at a variety of places nearby, but it would be impossible to do basketball because we don’t have a gym on campus.”
There are no plans at the moment for groundbreaking on new sports facilities. For the time being, ESF students have limited access to select training facilities on the SU campus. French also stated that if they decide to add sports such as bowling or skiing, there is also the possibility of contracting with facilities in the community that are already set up to accommodate them.
Whereas some students enroll in colleges that participate in Division I sports with hopes of turning professional after they receive their degree—or after one year as in the case of former Orangemen ballers Carmelo Anthony and Donte Green—athletes at ESF will first and foremost be looking to go all-pro in the classroom. “This will be a Division III-level program and we have no intention of offering athletic scholarships,” continued French. “They will be student athletes who can come to the college and get an outstanding education and also continue with athletics if they so choose.”
More than 800 students voted in an online poll conducted by the student government and communications office to choose the team nickname, and the Mighty Oaks received the most support, edging out other potential monikers such as the Knight Owls and Black Bears. “There is a connection with Mighty Oaks in the sense that the college was founded as a forestry school,” said French. “I think the students were really looking for a mascot name that was unique and the Mighty Oaks fit that.”
While some universities have taken a hit in enrollment numbers because of the current economic situation, ESF has seen steady growth. In 2003, there were 1,217 full-time undergraduate students; this fall, there are 1,527. An on-campus residence hall estimated for completion by the fall of 2011 will also allow students at ESF to experience the campus lifestyle previously missing there. That expansion, as with the NAIA affiliation, was not instituted to try to get more students to enroll at the school; it was the growing number of students that allowed the evolution.
“The athletic program is related in part to that growth in numbers in the undergraduate student body,” said French. “So as we have more students in classes and more students living on campus, it leads to more interest in student life related activities.”