More than 1,000 student-athletes will compete for six national championships when the NCAA, in conjunction with Bellarmine University and Greater Louisville Sports Commission, plays host to the 2012 NCAA Division II National Championships Festival on May 15-19 in Louisville, Ky.
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Editor's note: This is the third in a series highlighting individuals responsible for the staging of the Division II National Championships Festival.
By David Pickle
Scott Wiegandt knew his school scored a hit when it hosted the 2010 Division II National Championships Festival. But he didn’t he didn’t realize that Bellarmine’s hit was actually a long home run until he arrived at the NCAA Convention the next month.
“At times, I felt a little like a rock star walking the Convention floor,” said the Bellarmine athletics director. “People were coming up and saying, ‘Hey, you did a great job.’ The thanks and the pats on the back made it all worthwhile.”
So when the opportunity came to bid on the 2012 spring festival, the decision was an easy one: Go for it. Bellarmine made the bid and won the right to host the May 15-19 event.
Despite a hectic spring, Wiegandt has had no buyer’s remorse.
“The underlying theme that pops up over and over again is to provide a championship-level experience for the student-athletes,” said Wiegandt. “We want them to have memories and create memories that will last a lifetime while they’re here on our campus and in our city.”
Schools carefully consider whether to host a single championship, so agreeing to host six at once is huge. But the festival is more than the games. There are also large opening and closing ceremonies, along with myriad related events.
The Bellarmine staff doesn’t do all the work, but it does do a lot of it – and Wiegandt is glad they can help. Recalling 2010, he said: “My staff provided much of the labor, and one of our keys was to roll out the red carpet and display the hospitality that is so central to our mission.”
Of course, the world doesn’t stand still while Bellarmine brings the festival together. During one weekend in March, NCAA staff was in town identifying volunteers, discussing an Adopt-a-School program, considering a 5K fundraiser for Make-A-Wish and collecting video for promotions. Wiegandt and company helped make it all possible – and also hosted the regional for the Division II Men’s Basketball Championship the same weekend.
“It’s hard to imagine having a better host than Bellarmine,” said Amy Reis, NCAA assistant director for championships. “Not only are their personnel helpful, they are happy to help. And that attitude makes all the difference in creating an event like this.”
The list of successes for the 2010 festival was a long one. The opening ceremony at the Muhammad Ali Center was special, both in terms of enjoyment and education. And many rated the closing ceremony at Churchill Downs as the best ever. But to Wiegandt, one less visible success stood out: the popularity of the student-athlete lounges during the week of the festival.
“I like to see the interaction among the student-athletes,” he said. “I truly think that the student lounges that our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee hosted really helped make the event.”
Wiegandt knows first-hand about the bond of athletics. He was an all-American pitcher for the Bellarmine Knights and spent nine years in pro ball – many of them at the Triple A level. He felt so strongly about the interaction opportunity at the 2010 festival that he asked his men’s cross country team to stay at a hotel rather than in their own rooms so they could hang out with the other athletes.
This time, Bellarmine’s student-athletes will be out of school during the festival, but Wiegandt said he expects many will remain around to volunteer for the lounges and other events.
As it happens, Bellarmine student-athletes probably don’t need much encouragement these days to hang around. The Knights had another outstanding all-around season, led by a defending national champion men’s basketball team that has captured city-wide attention as it made a run at a second straight crown.
Troy Killian, director of operations for the Greater Louisville Sports Commission, said the Knights created a definite buzz.
“From an outsider coming to Louisville,” Killian said, “Bellarmine was a small, nice school, but it wasn’t out there. But now it is. People are coming and watching the games and know the caliber that Bellarmine has in sports – and academics.”
Several Bellarmine games sold out this winter as the team reached the national semifinals and proved that an urban Division II athletics program can generate popular appeal. The energy is real, and Knights Hall has become a tough place to play. But Wiegandt keeps himself grounded and understands the work and planning that have led to the increased following.
“It hasn’t always been that way,” he said. “Where we’ve come from to the atmosphere that is in there now has a lot to do with university PR, what comes from your sports information office, how you pitch stories and some special-interest stories that have carved out some media attention. That’s key, along with being consistent and keeping it going.
“And the other thing is this. Winning has been the best marketing tool I’ve ever experienced.”
The hard-earned popularity has provided the opportunity to educate new fans about what Bellarmine and Division II offer.
“We challenge our student-athletes academically, socially and athletically,” Wiegandt said. “I feel very strongly that it happens in that order.
“We don’t want our student-athletes to have their sport use them. We want them to use their sport to create opportunities for a lifetime. So it’s not just these four years; it’s about getting prepared for what’s beyond.”