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The Norse Have A New Home and My Attention Again

May 12, 2015

President Geoffrey Mearns

NKU President Geoffrey Mearns speaks at the Horizon League announcement.

Now that my little tantrum over the firing of former NKU head basketball coach Dave Bezold has subsided, NKU has finally done something to make me happy about being a Norse again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still disappointed in my alma mater for the way they let go a guy who had dedicated his life to the university and I am still a huge Bezold fan. It’s just that I have a short attention span and even my rage seems to have a time limit.

The Norse got my attention again over the weekend when news started to leak that NKU had been accepted into the Horizon League and will jump ship from their original Division 1 home the Atlantic Sun Conference beginning with the 2015-16 school year. That news was confirmed on Monday.

Look, as much as I loved my nostalgic idea of the Great Lakes Valley Conference and the Division 2 powerhouse era in Highland Heights, NKU was going to make the jump to Division 1 someday. The GLVC – once the greatest Division 2 league in America and one of the most entertaining leagues of any level you’d ever want to see – already wasn’t the same. Some of the teams the Norse had built great rivalries with were gone, most notable Kentucky Wesleyan. It had also become a far flung travel nightmare, in effect a Midwestern Atlantic Sun Conference. The school was too big (and still growing) to be comfortable at the Division 2 level. It competed for attention and status in a region loaded with Division 1 schools. And in the Bank of Kentucky Center, it had an arena much too ambitious to hold a Division 2 team. Things change.

American Southeast

If you played pin the A-Sun Team on the Map with this Map, you could probably hit one.

And when the Norse needed a landing pad to make the jump to Division 1 the A-Sun provided one. For that, I guess I am thankful. But the A-Sun was never going to be a long-term home for the Norse. The league was a logistical nightmare with teams reaching from Northern Kentucky to somewhere near Cuba. Hell, there may BE one in Cuba for all I know. And that’s the other problem. I tried (I REALLY DID!) to get excited about A-Sun games. I fired up my kids’ X-Box and watched medium quality broadcasts on the ESPN app, and I STILL can’t name all the teams in the league (I don’t think). Other than Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet 16 run a few years ago, there just isn’t anything to excite you there. And with the travel distance for NKU to almost every other school, no rivalry was ever really going to emerge.

There were only ever two leagues that made sense for the Norse – the Ohio Valley and the Horizon. The OVC rejected NKU before the A-Sun made itself available. And even though the OVC had three Kentucky schools and the opportunity for ready-made rivalries, the league was never really a perfect fit for the Norse. For one they have football, and basketball will always be a second-class citizen in a football league (and I would STILL be shocked if NKU ever went the football route). I grew up in the Northern Kentucky and the region always has identified to the north as opposed to the south and always will. For better or for worse, that’s the way it is.

So the Horizon always looked like the fit the Norse should covet. Thanks to now departed Butler the league has some recent basketball cache – a must for a school with basketball aspirations. And even without the Bulldogs, the Horizon sports five schools with Sweet Sixteen appearances (Cleveland State, Detroit, Green Bay, Milwaukee and Valparaiso). It also provides some unexpectedly fertile ground not to start but to RENEW rivalries.

Back when they were all Division 2 schools, NKU had many spirited contests with Wright State and Oakland. The Norse own a winning record against Oakland, and I distinctly remember thinking “If they can do it why can’t Northern?” when the Grizzlies (formerly the Pioneers – and who changes their name from Pioneers? Did Pioneers offend somebody?) jumped to D1.

NKU-Wright State 1987

Chris Wall (with ball), Terry Hairston (background) and Patrick Holt (50) helped knock off Wright State in 1987.

Wright State owned NKU for most of their history together with the Raiders – whose campus is so close to greater Cincinnati (which includes the NKU area) that a friend of mine commuted from Cincinnati to med school there – rolling up a 19-7 record against the Norse. For most of that time, Wright State was a Division 2 power and NKU was an aspirant, but the Norse won two of the last three games against the Raiders, including a 64-52 win in Regents hall in 1987, the season before the Raiders left Division 2. In that game Wright State brought a rowdy enough student section that two of their fans jumped out of the stands onto the NKU mascot. I remember that vividly, as I was that mascot (I pushed them off with my Norseman – then the NKU mascot – shield and got a thumbs up from then-NKU President Leon Booth, who was awesome).

So now the Norse have a new coach, a new transfer from Alabama (Jeff Garrett) and my attention again. I will always be disappointed that Bezold didn’t get the opportunity to coach without the strangling limitations that the NCAA transition period puts on a program, but I was also never going to be able to desert a University that meant so much to me and played such an important role in my life. Plus, I’m a Bengals fan, so I am predisposed to sticking with teams that frustrate me.

Now all I need to know is do Horizon League games play on my Xbox?

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