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On March 13th, the University of Hartford reached the high point of its 36-year history as a Division I basketball program when it earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid by capturing the America East Conference tourney title.

Last Thursday, exactly 54 days after that watershed moment, the school's board of regents voted to downsize Hawks athletics from Division I to Division III, which means the school will no longer give athletic scholarships, which puts it at the same level as The University of the South (Sewanee).

"A move to Division III will allow the University to further strengthen the academic, co-curricular, and wellness experience for all students," board of regents chair David Gordon said in a statement. "While we know this decision will disappoint some members of our community, we remain confident that this shift is in the best long-term interests of the institution and all its students."

Maybe this is an outlier and maybe not. The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has done significant financial damage to every college athletic department throughout the country, be they small (Division III), medium (Division II) or large (Division I, as both the Southeastern Conference and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Southern Conference are).

No less than UTC athletic director Mark Wharton said Tuesday afternoon: "I think that some programs, because of COVID-19, will have to look at it (dropping down a division or two). But I don't think it's going to become a trend, at least I hope not."

The coronavirus willing, a return to something closely approaching pre-COVID-19 normal reportedly just around the corner, we're about to see if Wharton's view of the future or Hartford's is more on point. The theory, or at least the hope within most athletic departments is that fans will return in droves, eager to return to the activities they once embraced.

But Hartford's decision was not without careful thought. The school reportedly commissioned a study by CarrSports that showed it would save $9.2 million a year by dropping from Division I to Division III. Interestingly enough, it was also reportedly CarrSports that once advised Alabama-Birmingham to drop football, a move UAB later regretted.

Which brings up the risk of Hartford's decision, since it runs the risk of disappearing from the public eye come March, at the very least. ESPN doesn't spend five minutes a year on Division III schools, and that's only if a D-III member hits a full-court buzzer-beater in basketball, turns a triple-play in baseball on a slow news day or wins the Division III football title.

In the eyes of the general public, D-III is a slight cut above outstanding high school competition.

So while it unquestionably saves money on one level, it can also erase a lot of free publicity on another level.

"Think of when we play Tennessee in football," said Wharton. "We're on the SEC Network. Anyone tuning in that game anywhere in the country sees the Power C on our helmets and hears our name when they wouldn't otherwise."

Indeed, both East Tennessee State and UAB — to name but two — have brought back their football programs after earlier dropping them over financial concerns because they decided their universities were far more attractive to potential students if they had a football program, as well as a marching band to attract gifted musical students.

And because so many Blacks fill football and men's and women's basketball rosters, athletics also helps make a campus more diverse and welcoming to minorities.

This is not to say that Hartford will be or should be an island. It may be at least another 12 to 15 months before we can fully measure the economic damage the pandemic has done to education at all levels, from kindergarten through university graduate schools.

Almost all college presidents and boards whose schools compete at the Division I level understand the potential pitfalls of dropping or downsizing their athletic departments. Of course, they also understand that it is better for a university not to have athletics, or at least Division I athletics, than have no university at all.

Wharton isn't overly concerned at the moment that such a move would come to pass at UTC.

"Chancellor (Steven) Angle has always referred to athletics as the front porch of the university," said Wharton. "He knows that's the first thing a lot of people hear about a college. He understands the value of athletics."

At least he seems to for now. Yet let the saving of $9.2 million a year be the difference in having a nursing school or a football team and a lot of schools may determine Division I athletics to be a front porch they no longer need.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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