Blair Kerkhoff

Title site for Division II football ready for a change

In 1985, Jerry Felts traveled to McAllen, Texas, to watch his alma mater, North Alabama, meet North Dakota State in the NCAA Division II national title game.

He returned to Florence, Ala., with a message to city officials.

“We could do it better,” Felts said.

The next year, the Division II finale came to Florence, and the Shoals region has been home to the game ever since.

The run of nearly three decades ended Saturday with Northwest Missouri State’s 43-28 triumph over Lenoir-Rhyne.

Next year, the event moves to the Heartland —to Sporting Park — and the soccer stadium becomes a football championship site for some of the same reasons it landed in Alabama.

“We were very impressed with the facility, and for what we could do for the student-athletes,” said Frank Condino, the athletic director at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and chairman of the Division II football committee.

The athletes’ experience is taken seriously in the world not in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The NCAA wants championships for the Football Championship Subdivision and Divisions II and III to have a big-time feel, even if events aren’t played in front of big crowds.

The NCAA can’t determine attendance, which often depends on the draw. But it can control the venue, the event headquarters and the pageantry leading to the game.

The Kansas City bid, a collaboration of the Kansas City Sports Commission and the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, scored big points here during the presentation.

“A chance to play at one of the premier facilities in the country, the teams coming into a major metropolitan area, and a first-class sports city, were all reasons,” Condino said. “The timing was right for a new opportunity.”

The idea of a team flying into Kansas City airport, with police escorting the buses to the downtown Marriott where each team will occupy a tower and playing in Sporting Park won over the committee, which awarded the championship to Kansas City for four years.

The MIAA as the host also weighed heavily in Kansas City’s favor. The NCAA will present next December what the MIAA has offered its members for several years. Its partnership with the downtown Marriott gives the basketball tournament at Municipal Auditorium a true March Madness feel.

These are important considerations because what cannot be guaranteed, like the weather and the draw. Kansas City battled wintry conditions on Saturday, while the game in Alabama had to deal only with wind. But it missed a storm by a few hours.

And as much as a MIAA team in the final would boost the game-day atmosphere —Northwest’s final appearance was the 13th by the Bearcats or Pittsburg State since 1991 —there could just as easily be a final like 2012 when Valdosta State (Ga.) met Winston-Salem State (N.C.).

By all accounts, Florence was an excellent site. The region rolled out the red carpet. It created the Harlon Hill Award ceremony, the Heisman for Division II, which expects to remain in Alabama. The trophy is named for a former North Alabama star.

Hill died earlier this year, and so did Grady Liles, a prominent civic leader who was the driving force behind bringing the game to Florence after it had spent the previous 13 years in five different locations.

The game grew to a point that Florence became etched in the hearts and minds of Division II. Football programs talk about reaching Florence in the preseason the way Division I baseball teams dream of Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series.

Turns out, only Omaha, in its seventh decade as baseball’s destination, has played host to an NCAA championship longer than Florence’s 28 years.

But just after Northwest was handed the championship trophy and players and coaches posed for photographs, “Goin to Kansas City,” was offered over Braly Municipal Stadium’s public-address system.

Change was in the air.

“The game has come so far since it’s been here,” Felty said. “But to be honest with you, it was probably time to move.”