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10 years later: MIAA move finally looks like a success

The Loper wrestling team won back-to-back NCAA Championships in their final season in the RMAC and first season in the MIAA. File Photo

Ten years ago, UNK left the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. While subjective, the consensus among the current coaches is that it was the right move. 

Still, the change did present some early challenges financially that caused growing pains for several of the school’s athletic programs. While scholarship numbers vary by sport, UNK was below the MIAA’s standard compared to the other schools.

“For some of our programs, being at a disadvantage with not the same scholarship allocations as some of the programs at other institutions put them at a disadvantage from square one,” said UNK athletic director Marc Bauer. “It takes time for that to develop. Gradually you’ve seen us emerge through some of the challenges.”

Fundraising has become a major player in UNK athletics, not only with scholarships but also helping fund the new wrestling and tennis facilities.

“There’s not one of our programs that’s fully funded when it comes to scholarship or operation budget,” Bauer said. “We’re very well taken care of by our institution, but on the other hand, there are other factors that are important with the fundraising piece. There’s been a renewed effort, and I think our coaches realize that if we’re going to be competitive then we’ve got to have scholarship dollars.”

This has played a major role in football, as $300,000 was raised at last year’s football backers banquet. The money allowed the team to meet the 36 scholarships that are issued by other MIAA programs to support academics. 

The MIAA has shown its dominance nationally in a variety of sports. In 2021-22, the Division II national champions in wrestling, men’s basketball and softball all came from the conference.

“If you look at men’s and women’s basketball, football, wrestling, soccer and volleyball, you will see that historically, the MIAA has fared better at a national level,” Bauer said. “You will see more MIAA sports teams competing for national championships versus the RMAC. It makes for a very powerful and strong conference.”

While former UNK football coach Darrell Morris predicted many of the challenges that the program would face in the MIAA, he also knew the value of having scholarships.

“My last game I coached at UNK, we beat Emporia State, which was a fully-funded MIAA team,” Morris said. “We knew that if we ever got to 36, we could compete and we would have enough depth and athletes to last an entire MIAA season.”

After finishing with losing seasons in their first seven seasons, the Lopers have posted three consecutive winning seasons with more scholarships available in recent years. UNK finished the 2021 season 10-3, defeating former RMAC foe Western Colorado in the first round of the playoffs 31-24. 

Long road trips are still a concern for the Lopers, but it would be much of the same in any conference.

“Both with the MIAA and RMAC, in terms of proximity to other institutions, we are what we consider an outlier,” Bauer said. “No matter what conference we would be in, we would be doing some substantial driving.”

Competing against the best of the best isn’t always the easiest, but it’s been a vital piece to the Lopers’ athletic success over the last 10 years. 

“I think it would be hard to argue anything but this was the right move,” said UNK volleyball coach Rick Squiers. “I don’t always feel like that when I look at our schedule and see who we have coming up, but from an objective standpoint we fit in this league, we look like the other schools in this league and our campus is similar. Strictly from a conference standpoint, this seems to be the ideal fit.”

The UNK football team has a 43-68 program record since joining the MIAA in 2012. The Lopers’ record was 129-64 in their 18 years in the RMAC. File Photo
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KEVIN BURD, Sports Edior
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