It’s the End of an Era in Norseland
I’m old. I like the familiar, the comfortable, that which I already know. That’s why I loved the Great Lakes Valley Conference and I loved that my college – Northern Kentucky University – played in it. It was, without question, the best overall Division 2 men’s college basketball conference in the country. It regularly filled half the bracket or more for the Great Lakes Regional. As often as not, it seemed, a GLVC team was playing for the Division 2 National Championship. Twice Northern Kentucky University was that team. That both were losses hardly matters now, other than the fact that Shannon Minor’s three-point attempt as time expired in the 1997 championship will haunt me forever. I sat right on the line from him to the basket, and from the time it left his hand, it looked like it was going in and me and my Norseman helmet (Oh, did I mention that I was once the NKU mascot [1986-88]? And yes I still have the helmet. Never mind how or why) were about to storm the court. Except it didn’t go in, and I just sat there stunned.
Regardless, I loved the GLVC and I love Northern Kentucky University and, again, I Iike the familiar. So it was that more than a little bit of nervousness mixed with my excitement when NKU declared its intention to move to Division 1 athletics. I’ve been in or around college athletics since…well, since I was the Norseman. I knew the incredible challenge ahead of my school – and the few people I knew from my days as a student who were still there. And I knew the possibilities.
Well, those possibilities became realities today when Dave Bezold was relieved of his duties as NKU’s (now just the Norse) head basketball coach. In the interest of not so shocking full disclosure. I am an unabashed Bezold fan. He was an assistant as far back as my days at the university (which finally came to a close in 1991), and he was on the bench for both of those National Championship games as an assistant to Ken Shields. When Shields retired, Bezold was elevated to the head coach position. He inherited a tradition not only of winning at NKU, but a tradition of the head basketball coach being one of the best men on campus. For eight years, he carried on both traditions spectacularly. Bezold compiled a 161-79 record in eight seasons in the GLVC. He won or shared three division titles and finished second two other times.
He also continued being a tremendous representative for the University. Still in the Division 2 days, Bezold hired Jillian Daugherty, an NKU student with Down syndrome, as a student manager for the team (Jillian’s dad, outstanding Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty has a book coming out about Jillian, you should probably read it). This year he and his team began playing wheelchair basketball with a team in Cincinnati.
If you watched the video, that’s Bez in the yellow shirt.
The winning over the three years since NKU made the jump to Division 1 hasn’t come as easily for Bezold and the Norse. Making the move to college athletics’ highest level is hard, and intentionally so. It is a gateway intended to ensure that only schools that are fully committed to the responsibilities of making the move even try. Among the difficulties of the jump are four-year bans on playing for a league championship or in the NCAA Tournament. That means that for a few years, Bezold and his staff were recruiting to a promise of…nothing. No matter how good you got how fast, there was nowhere to go once the regular season ended. There would be no confetti cannon, no trophy presentation. Few high school kids with the ability to play Division 1 sports are interested.
Regardless Bezold finished .500 in the Atlantic Sun Conference in his first year. The league includes a Florida Gulf Coast team that beat Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 that season (NKU led them by five with 10 minutes to play in Highland Heights that first season). He dipped to 5-13 in the league the next year.
This season the A-Sun allowed NKU to compete for league titles two years ahead of schedule. The announcement came in July, long after recruiting for this past season had come to a close. The advantage would come for the coming season. The NKU coaches would finally have something to give kids to play for when they came to NKU.
Bezold got the Norse back to .500 in the league this season and they hosted an A-Sun Tournament game (in Regents Hall, the old, comfortable Division 2-level gym. The Norse’s usual home had already been leased to the high school regional tournament). The Norse lost that Tournament game. It would be Bezold’s last game in a 25-year tenure in Highland Heights. He was fired today, with one year left before NKU’s transitional period ended.
It’s a move that feels cynical, shallow, uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not the case, but the change feels like the plan all along was to leave Bezold as a placeholder, just good enough to do the heavy lifting on the way to Division 1, but not good enough to give him a real shot to compete. Now with NCAA Tournament eligibility looming it’s time get a “bigger name” or an “up and comer.”
I have always been a proud NKU alumnus. I tell everybody where I went to school. I had a tremendous experience there and I will always value it. Again, I was the Norseman for two years.
Not long ago, a scandal erupted in the NKU athletics department when then-AD Scott Eaton was charged with (and eventually convicted of) embezzling more than $300,000, mostly in Kroger gift cards no less. I wasn’t embarrassed when that story broke. One idiot did something bad. That happens. It’s a one-guy issue, not a University issue.
Today I’m a little embarrassed. This is a classless move and sends a guy who gave 25 years to the University packing. It’s exactly the kind of thing – the kind of change – I feared when the Division 1 announcement was made.
The Norse may well go on to great things from here. They certainly have the potential. It’s a good school with a beautiful basketball facility, although they will desperately need a different league if they want to draw better at the 10,000-seat Bank of Kentucky Center. Few in Northern Kentucky have heard of most of the teams in the Atlantic Sun outside of Florida Gulf Coast. Fewer care to see them play. But whatever happens from here, it won’t feel familiar, and it definitely won’t feel comfortable.