Augustana & Inevitability

If you’re a fan of the Marvel movies and you’ve seen Avengers: Endgame, then you know this quote from Thanos: "I am inevitable." If for some reason you think that’s a spoiler, then I apologize. But the reality is, much like in the Marvel movies, some things in the sports world are, well, inevitable.

AJ Plitzuweit announced Thursday that he was transferring from Augustana (currently in Division II) to South Dakota (currently in Division I). His specific departure wasn’t necessarily inevitable, but he now represents the first domino in what is inevitably coming. In his statement on Twitter, and in his interview with Midco Sports Network’s Jay Elsen on Friday, AJ cited Augustana’s transition to Division I as one of the reasons he was leaving. You can view that interview here:

I personally don’t think there will be a full "mass exodus" following AJ out the door at Augustana – but you’d be naïve to think this transition and its timeline won’t impact how head coach Tom Billeter and the Vikings operate for the next couple of years.

Timelines Are Tricky

It’s been more than five months since Augustana declared its intention to become a Division I athletics program. But the rules regarding moving up have changed in recent years. In the past, you did not need a conference affiliation to move upwards. Take South Dakota, for instance. When they first moved back in 2008, they were independent, then part of the now-defunct Great West Conference before settling into the Summit League and Missouri Valley Football Conference. Augustana can’t do that now. They need a secured invitation from a conference (or conferences) to officially begin the process of becoming a full-fledged Division I institution. As of May 2019, that hasn’t happened yet.

Once that invitation is secured, then the transition begins. And in that transition, as most fans know, you’re ineligible to compete in your conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament for four years. AJ made it clear he didn’t want the potential back half of his college basketball career to not have any possibility of competing at the highest level. There will be others who feel the same way. There will also be some willing to ride out the transition, with the idea that they were the ones who helped Augustana initially through the process.

Once in the transition, Augustana (like any school) will be hard-pressed to find guys willing to commit to two or three years of ineligibility for one or two chances at the Big Dance. But again, there will inevitably be some willing to take that risk. This is the trickiest part of the move up, the understanding that you’re not only transitioning as a program, but transitioning in terms of what kinds of kids you can get before, during, and after the move.

The Past Determines The Future

As someone who’s covered the NSIC for more than five years, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked about my opinion of Augustana declaring its intention to go Division I. My response has been the same pretty much every time: as long as you understand the next five to 10 years are going to be rough, you will probably come out greener on the other side. It was rough for South Dakota State, and they made it through. It was rough for South Dakota, and they made it through. It will be rough for Augustana, but I’m pretty sure they’ll make it through.

The success of SDSU men’s basketball in particular is a blueprint for how a school’s success in Division I simply takes time. Just look at these records during their transition years.

  • 2004-05: 10-18
  • 2005-06: 9-20
  • 2006-07: 7-24
  • 2007-08: 8-21

That’s an overall mark of 34-83. Somehow, Scott Nagy survived that and eventually led SDSU to its first NCAA Tournament a few years later in 2012. USD men’s hoops fared a little better in their transition years:

  • 2008-09: 20-9
  • 2009-10: 22-10
  • 2010-11: 18-15
  • 2011-12: 10-18

Keep in mind, the 2011-12 season was USD’s first in The Summit League, while the previous three years were either independent or in the Great West Conference which, despite its name, was not that great. Augustana, with a bigger city appeal in Sioux Falls (compared to Brookings and Vermillion), and two examples of how other schools got through their transition, will be well equipped to bear the brunt of whatever comes its way.

It Hurts Now, But …

The only thing we know for sure about Augustana’s athletics program is they will play in the NSIC in the 2019-2020 season. After that, it’s still unclear. It’s likely they will be in the NSIC for the 2020-2021 season as well, but things could change rapidly. There was a sense of hope I got amongst some Augustana fans that the men’s basketball team’s success this past season (18-11 overall, share of the NSIC South Division title) with five freshmen could lead to becoming a contender for another national championship in a year or two as a way to kind of "cement" its Division II legacy before the transition. Alas, one part of that freshmen class is now gone and the Vikings will need to find a new starting point guard. For Augie fans, it’s probably disappointing. But these are the bumps that come on the winding road toward Division I.

Tom Billeter is a fantastic basketball coach. Everyone at Augustana, from President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin to Athletic Director Josh Morton on down, is focused on making this thing work. And while I have no doubt Augustana will inevitably be just fine, it’s also inevitable that AJ Plitzuweit’s decision to transfer is a reality Augustana will have to get used to for the foreseeable future.

Filed Under College | Augustana University | University of South Dakota