In this episode of Highest Potential, I welcome to my office Dr. Neal Ring — the Bruins Athletic Director — to discuss the news that the BJU Bruins have been approved for provisional NCAA Division III membership.
What does this news mean and what will change within the Bruins athletic department? Dr. Pettit and Dr. Ring answer those questions and share some history of athletics at BJU.
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Transcript for “BJU Bruins Approved for Provisional NCAA Division III Membership” podcast
Burak: Welcome to Highest Potential with Steve Pettit, a podcast that explores how Bob Jones University empowers individuals to reach their highest potential for God’s glory.
Pettit: Well, we’d like to welcome you today to our Highest Potential podcast. It’s been a number of weeks since we’ve had our last podcast. In part, I was out of town on vacation, and of course, we’ve got so much going on with the COVID-19 pandemic and our work here at Bob Jones University, that we’re just getting back now to doing some programs.
And so today, we are very, very excited to have with us Dr. Neal Ring. Neal Ring is the athletic director at Bob Jones University, and we made a very important announcement this week, and I’m going to let Neal tell us about that announcement. So, Neal, thank you for being with us today.
Ring: Thank you for the invitation. It’s great to be here, and we are excited about the new opportunity for us with the NCAA Division III. They have approved our application to become a provisional member starting in September, and so we are getting ourselves ramped up for that to be sure that we are ready for that. Obviously, with the COVID-19, there are some uncertainties out there.
Ring: As all athletic departments try to decide how to operate during this time, and so we’re doing the same thing.
Pettit: Wonderful. Well, I want to maybe do this. Let’s do a little bit of a history of Bob Jones University and intercollegiate sports and then let’s get to the point of the D III, why we decided to do it, what does it mean to be “provisional” and how we look. So, you’ve been with us ever since the start, so give us a little bit of the history of the sports program at Bob Jones University.
Ring: Sure. So, the first six years of the University there was athletics and then …
Pettit: So, you’re talking about 1927.
Ring: Yes, back in the beginning. There was the Swamp Angels and then …
Pettit: That was back when we were in Panama City, Florida?
Ring: Yes, sir.
Pettit: Had a football team.
Ring: Yes, we did. Football — I still have some of the pictures up in the athletic office of those early days. So, fast forward to 2011 in December, and the board approved intercollegiate athletics. And then, 2012 was our first year to compete.
Pettit: So, I’ll probably jump in here. Obviously, people that are affiliated with Bob Jones University knew that we had intercollegiate sports in the beginning. Then Dr. Bob Jones Sr. stopped them, primarily because he was concerned about it becoming an overemphasis in the school’s beginning, especially since they were focused on ministerial training and so forth. And so, all those years we had lots of sports on campus, but it was all intramural, probably one of the bigger intramural programs in the country. So, we would have a Turkey Bowl, a soccer championship and how many would show up?
Ring: The outside stadium seats 4,500 and my understanding is that at times it would be full.
Pettit: Yeah. But we made a vote here to move forward. What was the reasoning for starting the intercollegiate program?
Ring: Well, I think there was an opportunity for the University to get into a very critical part of our society. When you think about sport and the voice that it has, the influence it has on our society, and it provides for that student who God has gifted in a physical way, He’s given physical abilities, to come and get a great education and a great spiritually — a growth environment. One of the things that you’ve said before is it’s a place where you don’t just survive but you thrive, and also to then represent the university in intercollegiate competition and expanding our voice beyond even our campus and beyond our community and going out and trying to be a Christ-centered, representing the University, being a Christ-centered program.
Pettit: Yes, so from the very start of our intercollegiate sports program, we had a very clear philosophy of the “why” factor. Of course, it does give students the experience of playing intercollegiate sports, but what’s the overall philosophy of the ministry side of the sports program?
Ring: Well, I think for us, from the beginning it’s been to use sport as a platform for ministry. First of all, internally, so discipleship is a significant part. I’m actually finishing up our accreditation information for this year and one of the things we do is track our discipleship program. This is what we do. Each coach has their own program that they utilize within the culture of their sport.
And so that’s where it begins. There’s discipleship from you, from me, down to the coaches. There’s a discipleship from coaches to the student athletes. There’s discipleship peer-to-peer; we have a lot of peer-to-peer groups within our athletic program. My challenge to them is to take what’s being poured into them and to then look for those opportunities within the residence halls and opportunities here on campus.
And then obviously, there’s the external or outward-facing opportunities for us as it relates to as we go compete, as we travel representing Christ, representing the University. As we play, we try to play in a way honors Christ, but to play in a way that reflects our passion for Him as well as our passion for doing the best that we can do. We should never do anything less than our best.
Pettit: Well, one of the things I’ve been impressed by is that oftentimes we’ll play other teams, and we never try to recruit other players from other schools. That’s obviously forbidden, but we haven’t done it. However, we’ve actually had students transfer to Bob Jones University simply because they were believers on a secular campus and they saw the spirit and the atmosphere and the students, and we’ve gotten numbers of players like that.
Ring: Absolutely. I can think of one specific instance where we had a young man come from a secular institution and then reach back out to one of his former teammates who had transferred somewhere else just to become a student, and in essence, his words were, “You’ve got to come to Bob Jones. You’re not going to believe the environment here, and we get to play the sport that we love.” That’s a win for us because it allows us with our testimony to demonstrate we are a different place; we are competing for a higher calling than just winning on the scoreboard.
And believe me, we’re trying to win on the scoreboard. We’re very proud of the 12 NCCAA national championships that we’ve won. And I think we would do a disservice to Christ if we didn’t make that effort to try to be the best that we could be. We’ve won for the past four years. We’ve been recognized as from the NCCAA as the top Division II program with the President’s Award for Excellence. We take pride in that.
At the end of the day, though, that’s not the only thing that we’re trying to accomplish. Each year, we do between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of community service, including going on to international mission trips. We have coaches that go do clinics internationally. Our teams are taking international mission trips where they’re actually going and not just spectating and visiting cool sites around the world; they’re actually ministering and giving the Gospel and using the platform that they have.
And one of the hardest things for me currently is I haven’t been able to go back to China this year, I haven’t been able to go to the Philippines, I’m not going to be able to go to Africa. These are places that God has given me opportunities over the last seven years, eight years, to go and minister specifically using sport. Because of where we are with the pandemic, it’s just not available.
So, that’s happening on a yearly basis where we’re really taking that outward step. And doing what we say is important to us and using the platform of sports as a ministry platform to give the gospel of Christ.
Pettit: Yes. Well, I think that is at the very heart of what our founder wanted. As an evangelist, that would be truly my heart, and I’ve been encouraged to watch our golfers go to Ireland and our soccer players have gone to South America, volleyball teams have gone to Central America, I believe our baseball teams will go to Dominican Republic and so, really spreading the gospel. And literally, there have been scores of people that have been saved through the ministries of the BJU intercollegiate sports programs.
So, let’s get into the sports themselves. Tell me, when we started back in 2011, how many sports did we have at that time?
Ring: So, we started with four, and I think it was a great decision by the board and Dr. Jones at that time to pick four sports that were well represented within our immediate constituency and were strong intramural sports. And so, we had men’s and women’s soccer, and we had men’s and women’s basketball. And so, when we started, I think Coach McCormick had, I think he had over 80 guys from the student body come out. I know I had over 60 come out for men’s basketball trying out. I was hired in March and we had to have teams on the field in August.
Ring: And so, it was a very quick turnover and so having that pool of students to draw from the intramural program was helpful.
Pettit: Now, let me ask you this, because sometimes people get a little confused when we say NCAA and NCCAA. So, we became immediately a member of NCCAA. Tell us what that means.
Ring: The National Christian Collegiate Athletic Association is an affiliation for us. The organization has two divisions, Division I and Division II. Division II, basically, you don’t give out athletic scholarships and that’s where we fall. And so …
Pettit: Division I would be …
Ring: Division I is – they give scholarships. So, or they have the opportunity to give scholarships. The overwhelming majority of them do. Most of the Division I institutions are dually affiliated with the NAIA or the NCAA Division II or III. Most of the NCCAA Division II programs are just that, just NCCAA. And so, there’s a wide variety of schools around the country that participate in the NCCAA. It’s actually headquartered right here in Greenville, South Carolina, so it’s a great opportunity for us to be a part of the national office and interact with the good folks there.
Pettit: They do great work. One of the things that could be confusing to people that once you understand, it’s pretty clear, but let’s say the NCCAA Division II, which BJU has been a part of all these years, which is nonscholarship; they really don’t have leagues, they have regions. And so, for example, our men and women’s soccer – there’s probably only three to five teams in the region. And so, obviously we just don’t play three to five teams, so we have to play NCAA Division from I all the way to III, we play NAIA teams. And so, let’s say a 16-game season for men or women’s soccer, we play maybe three or four NCCAA teams and the rest would be the others. So, most of the NCCAA is really year-end, championship-type opportunities for us. Which really kind of leads us to the question of the NCAA, National Collegiate Athletic Association, Division I, II and III. So, explain to us the difference between I, II and III ‘cause we’re now in III.
Ring: Sure. So, Division I – that’s what most people think about when they think of NCAA, and you have your Power Fives, which would be your SEC and your Big Ten and those. Then you have more of a mid- major which would be the Mac out of the Midwest, and then you have your low-majors which would be like a Presbyterian, for example. And so, they’re all – even in Division I, there’s a big range.
Division II – Division II is a difficult place to be from the standpoint of financially, they don’t get as much attention, they don’t get as much revenue, but they provide a lot of opportunities for student-athletes to compete and get a scholarship. Normally those scholarships are not full; they are a small amount, but they can say they’re a student-athlete that got a scholarship.
Pettit: So, let’s take South Carolina. So obviously, USC, Clemson, they’re all DI.
Pettit: Wofford is DI, the Citadel’s DI, Furman’s DI. DII would be like North Greenville, Anderson University, Erskine, some of the others – they’re all scholarship schools. So, DIII in South Carolina.
Ring: Bob Jones University.
Pettit: Well, you know what’s really crazy, when you start looking at numbers, in the NCAA Division I and Division II there are a little over 300 teams in those divisions throughout the whole United States and in the NCAA Division III, there are over 400 teams. So, actually there are more teams, but they’re not as well known because they are smaller colleges.
Ring: They are, they’re smaller colleges and they tend to be more regionally located. You have a lot in the Midwest, you have a lot in the Northeast, and so, South Carolina, for whatever reason, has never had Division III, and BJU is first.
Pettit: We’re the first NCAA Division III in the State of South Carolina. So, what makes DIII different than DI and DII?
Ring: Well, ultimately there’s no scholarships. So athletically, you cannot give a scholarship to someone based on their ability or participation in athletics. You can give scholarships – obviously, we have our institutional and academic scholarships that we give, but we cannot give them anything based on their athletic ability. And, it is a — the student – it is a holistic approach to their experience. They’re not an athlete who also is a student. They’re a student. And one of the things that Division III prides itself in is a student who also participates in athletics. And they’re more than likely, a high percentage of them, are never going to do anything beyond that four years of college. And so, it changes the dynamic of the participant, why they’re participating. And the majority of the students that we will compete against will be, they’ll be in the classroom as much as our student-athletes will. Some of them will be working jobs like our students have to work. They’re not professional – I use that term, you know, not the professional student-athlete that you might think of at the University of Georgia or South Carolina or Clemson.
Pettit: Or the NFL or the NBA or anything like that.
Ring: Right. It’s truly an opportunity for them to strengthen their preparation for life. And so, we get to utilize the brand, the NCAA brand, to strengthen our student athletes as they go out, and there’s enough research and data out there to demonstrate that a NCAA athlete that is going to have opportunities based on their experience because people trust – if you can be a student and an athlete and succeed, then you’re somebody I want to consider.
Pettit: You have serious character.
Pettit: Absolutely. Well, when I came to Bob Jones University as the president, we had had intercollegiate sports for two years, and so, when I came in, number one question I got asked right off the bat was “What do you think about scholarships?” and I said to you, “Well, I’m not against scholarships because I had a scholarship when I played soccer at The Citadel.” And I played NCAA Division I soccer for four years, so I wasn’t against it, but I said, “I don’t know what’s best for Bob Jones University.” And at the end of that year, we concluded together that for us at Bob Jones University, at this stage in its history, we did not feel that scholarships was fitting for our culture.
So, when we got into the Division II NCCAA, we began to ask ourselves, how can we get into more of a league play that really stretches our program and our athletes to the highest level. And you said it well because our vision here at Bob Jones is really, part of it is really student experience and we want our students to have the best experience possible and at the same time emphasize student education. So, as we began to look around, tried to envision which way, then we landed down on NCAA Division III.
So, when did this process begin? Because it wasn’t yesterday.
Ring: It basically, like you said, we met pretty early in your tenure to talk about what’s next? Because we were trying to decide; at that point, we were NCCAA Division I because we didn’t have an option in the beginning. They changed some rules, basically, the year we came in, and so we were able to move into Division II, which was a better fit for us. We were talking about that, and we were talking about where do we want to go in the future. And you, I felt very wisely, asked me, “Hey, let’s put together a task force.”
And so, we had a task force of people from a variety of campuses, excuse me, from a variety of offices across campus, that we met for several weeks and researched and talked over 50 schools, and basically, that group came to the realization of Division III is the best opportunity for us, it would be the best direction for us. I made the recommendation to you, you reviewed the data and accepted that, and then the board saw the vision as well and said, “Yeah, let’s go for that.” And so, it’s been a long process already.
Pettit: How long have we been working on this?
Ring: This is going into – we’ve been a provisional school for two years. Excuse me, not a provisional school, an exploratory school.
Pettit: We’re looking into it.
Ring: We’re looking into it. We could have done that only one year but just decided that at the time, it was best for us to extend another year, strengthen ourselves positionally to become a better fit for Division III operationally. And when we got the word back this spring that they were ready for us to become a provisional institution.
Pettit: So, what does provisional mean?
Ring: Well, basically it means that we operate as a Division III program. We use the branding, the marketing, everything. We just can’t participate in post-season play for NCAA. So, that’s where the NCCAA dual affiliation comes in for us at this point in particular, because we will have post-season opportunities for student athletes. So, for the next three years, we will continue to demonstrate our ability to operate as a Division III program. With their support, they basically have come alongside of us and said, “How can we help you? We want you to succeed; how can we help you in this process?” And basically, we will each year begin to understand, OK, here’s the compliance that we have to have, it’s much different than what we’re used to.
One of the things that they said to us when they visited was, “You’re a very compliant organization. We have no question that you’re going to try to do what we ask you to do.” I felt like that was a good testimony for us. We just – it’s just different. There are things that we’ve been able to do that were not part of the NCCAA rulebook that are part of the NCAA rulebook.
Pettit: And the strictness has to do with, actually, the philosophy is academics are first, and therefore, the schedule is not as extensive as you get in the other leagues or the other divisions, so it really definitely makes a difference. So, the question we’re all going to wonder is, are we in a league? Or like, where are we?
Ring: So, that’s a great question, and that’s probably one of the ones that I’ve answered the most. So, the NCAA office is in Indianapolis, right, and that’s kind of overarching for the legislation, but ultimately, the NCAA is run by the conferences, and the conference is made up of schools. So ultimately, the NCAA is a group of schools who submit to the regulations. So, one of the things that we don’t have at this point is we don’t have a conference. We want to get into a conference, but no conference is going to bring someone in in a provisional status at this point because it doesn’t benefit them. You compete against them in a regular season, but you can’t participate in the post season. You can’t be considered for weekly awards; you can’t be considered for conference awards. Your staff — so, rather than kind of have this mixed bag of schools, some can be, some can’t be considered, basically they want to wait until you are going into you’re a member in full standing.
And so, over the next three years, that is part of our goal, part of our mission, and honestly, each institution’s decisions are determined, as they should be, by the president. And so, as I shared with one of the newscasters yesterday when I did an interview, ultimately, you will have a big influence in this conference pursuit because you’re going to have opportunities to interact with presidents of other institutions and share the vision of athletics at Bob Jones, and in essence, recruit them from the standpoint of, “Hey, we’d like to be in your conference. Here’s who we are. Here’s where we align. Here’s how we can benefit and be a help or support within this conference” and start building that coalition that will allow us to then, once they go to vote, then we hope to be voted in. And right now, we’re just in that early phases. You and I have had that conversation with college commissioners and done what we can do to this point, so …
Pettit: Well, a good portion of our schedule is playing the DIII teams and some conferences where we would be looking at opportunities there. So, get us up to speed. Tell us, how many sports teams do we have now? So, we started out with basically four teams.
Ring: Four teams, yes. And then we added cross-country and golf.
Pettit: Which was before I came.
Ring: Right. Cross-country and golf. And so that was men’s and women’s, so we go from four, we double to eight. And then we added track, because typically with cross-country, you run cross in the fall and track in the spring. So that put us up to 10, excuse me, yeah 10. And then we added women’s volleyball.
Pettit: That came when I came in, yeah.
Ring: Yeah. And we’ve added …
Pettit: Which we’ve won two national championships.
Ring: Yes, yes. But it helps to have a Hall-of-Famer head coach come in; she’s done a great job. And then we’ve added baseball which we’ll be starting in the spring, and am I forgetting – we have shooting sports, and I think I’ve …
Pettit: That’s pretty much it.
Ring: I think I’ve hit them all.
Pettit: I think you’ve hit them all. Well, we’ve had, I think, good growth in our program. I think we are where we’re supposed to be with NCAA DIII. I think one of the most exciting things is just the young people who have already graduated and who are going out in the world. They have character; they have discipline. They’re in the business world, they’re in the ministerial world. We have youth pastors, we have coaches, we have athletic directors. This year 70% of our entire intercollegiate sports athletes were on the dean’s list and above. So, it really fits within the NCAA Division III. So, I’m going to close with one question.
Pettit: And that is, in light of COVID-19 and of course school closing, and then we’re planning to have on-campus classes this fall, the question is, are we going to have athletics this fall at Bob Jones University.
Ring: The easy answer to that is yes. We have a COVID-19 athletic task force that meets regularly and is working through how do we do that? What’s the operational plan that fits in with the CDC and DHEC and the government and how do we offer athletics? Is it going to be different? Absolutely, as everything is. One of the things that we’re waiting on is what are these other affiliations going to do? The NAIA has already limited when they can start, the NCAA has actually kind of expanded when we can start, kind of given us a little bit more time. There’s a question about is — are all the fall championships going to try to be moved before Thanksgiving? Right now, they’re not.
So, there’s a lot of uncertainty. So, just like every institution and every athletic director and athletic program, we’re simply trying to be up to date with where we are. We have a great group of people including medical folks that support us and staff, and we have a student athlete on the committee. We’re getting a broad perspective of what people are thinking and we’re also looking at our recreation intramural as well. How can we do that in a way that’s safe but provides an opportunity for our students to participate?
So, the easy answer is yes, unless, for whatever reason, we go back into some kind of a massive shutdown …
Ring: …which we all hope and pray doesn’t take place. And excited. We’re all excited to get our students on campus and get back at it.
Pettit: Well, the program here is a fantastic program. Under the leadership of Dr. Neal Ring, we actually have a master’s degree program online, which is sports management and …
Ring: It’s a sports administration and coaching …
Pettit: Yes, and we have quite a few online students that are involved in this. We have three or four PhDs in our program and most of those are our coaches. So, I’m just telling those folks who don’t know what Bob Jones University has in the way of sports, it is a fantastic program. We have tremendous spiritual coaches. Our student-athletes are wonderful young people. And so, I hope you’ll be able to get out to some of our games this fall, and we are in alignment with the health regulations, doing the best we can. And we could talk forever; we’ll cut it off right here, but we are excited about the opportunity we have, and most importantly, is to use sports as a platform for ministry for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, thank you, Neal. Appreciate your time.
Ring: Thanks for the opportunity. Great to see you again.
Burak: Thanks for listening to this episode of Hidden Potential with Steve Pettit. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a positive review on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please don’t forget to follow BJU on social media @bju.edu and Dr. Steve Pettit at @bjupresident.