Understanding the gap

Go to PGE Park Saturdays in the next two months and you will see your PSU Vikings slogging their way through another tough football season against fellow Big Sky Conference opponents. If through a miracle or other act of God the Vikings make the playoffs, they’d be competing for the D I-AA crown (the fact that there are playoffs at all is the first clue). Yet when the pigskin is retired in favor of hoops season, a Big Sky tourney win would mean a trip to the NCAA tourney and a taste of March Madness.


Why does PSU play Division I-AA football when every other sport competes at the Division I level? The easy answer is because the Big Sky is bush league and Portland State isn’t good enough to be fully D I. That’s not fair to the league or the school. The football program is representative of a larger issue. The smart answer has to do with saving money and adding flexibility, not to mention the pressure every athletic program feels to field competitive teams.


Portland State currently fields teams for 14 sports, some of them competitive, others not so much. Moving to a fully D I level would require PSU to have many more sports, sports which right now Portland State simply can’t afford. As it is, budget cuts following Sept. 11 forced PSU to drop men and women’s tennis, one of the core sports the Big Sky requires schools to offer. Now the Big Sky Conference may force the issue and prompt the university to reinstate a Viking tennis program that can cost up to $300,000 to run.


Portland State Athletic Director Tom Burman likes where PSU’s current sports roster stands.

“It provides students with an opportunity to compete,” Burman said. “The more broad-based we become the less we can fund each individual sport.”


Big Sky schools lacking a full array of sports are nothing new. Montana State doesn’t have a soccer program, yet they offer skiing. Reinstating tennis or adding a sport such as swimming or water polo seems reasonable in the future, but right now the clear focus is on winning now. An oft-repeated goal of Burman’s is to win four or six Big Sky championships every year. And right now that means playing with what you have.


“I want the ability to do what’s best for us,” Burman said, sounding more like a man protecting his family than the athletic director at a sometimes apathetic urban campus. “I don’t believe a conference should mandate we add a sport that doesn’t make sense for us.”


While PSU and the Big Sky will work out the tennis question sooner or later, a bigger one remains. Namely, will Portland State ever become a fully Division I school? Not right now and probably not for a long time, if ever. The Vikings are competitive but have a ways to go in most sports until they can be called truly entertaining to watch.


The football program and their horribly anemic offense are a prime offender. They can win games, but the real question is whether they can win the attention of fans. Without running back Joe Rubin leading the conference in yards, the Vikings may as well just punt on first down. In a game of glorified territorial conquest and violent hits, PSU has been rather tame so far.


Yet as a whole the Vikings are 15-8 across all sports. The volleyball team is a huge part of that number, having gone a dominating 10-3 in their preseason. But to mean anything they will have to keep winning against conference opponents. Continued success and continued runs at championships are the only things that will ever make PSU think twice about leaving the Big Sky. Until then, the goal is simple. Play with what you have and win.


NOTE:  This article has been edited from it’s original format. The NCAA  uses roman numerals, not arabic in division classification. PSU is also  fully division I, as the designations of A, AA and AAA apply only to football. This article considers "fully D-I" to be "D-1A."  The Vanguard regrets the errors.