NORTH ANDOVER -- Christopher Hopey said he was told when he was hired as Merrimack College’s president that the board of trustees wanted big changes.
Eight years later, there have been a few.
Merrimack has more than doubled enrollment from 1,700 students to 4,600. It created a graduate school. The Lawler Arena and Volpe Complex were renovated. Merrimack's ranking improved from 174th in U.S. News & World Report to one of the 10 "most transformative" institutions identified by the magazine. And a Dunkin Donuts franchise opened on campus.
Yesterday Hopey added another notch: Merrimack athletics are moving to Division I.
The Northeast Conference and its presidents announced their acceptance of Merrimack as the 11th member beginning in the fall of 2019. Per NCAA rules, Merrimack will go through a four-year reclassification period in which its athletes are not allowed play in Division I tournament events.
Moving up from Division II was something Hopey said he had considered since he was hired.
"We don't see ourselves as a small Catholic school any more," he said. "We see ourselves now as a regional Catholic school, like Boston College, Providence, Holy Cross and Sacred Heart. And moving to Division I in athletics is part of that plan."
As for the transition, Hopey said the school has been planning, directly and indirectly, for several years.
Merrimack has ranked among the top of the Northeast-10 Conference in scholarships. In the past eight years it has doubled the number of sports it offers.
And its facilities, including the new football stadium, are at or near acceptable Division I levels.
"We've been making investments every year in athletics to position ourselves for the eventual transition," he said. "We didn't do this blindly. We have been working on the infrastructure."
In a Northeast Conference membership, Hopey sees thousands of miles of fertile territory to recruit prospective students. NEC schools stretch as far west as Pittsburgh (Robert Morris University) and as far south as Emitsburg, Maryland (Mount St. Mary’s).
That means expanding Merrimack's name and, as important, its brand, said Hopey.
"To be able to go to the mid-Atlantic area, western Pennsylvania and much of New York (and New Jersey) helps us become a regional school for the Northeast," he said. "It gives us a bigger area to promote our brand and embrace who we are — a diverse, Catholic college that offers a lot of opportunities in many areas."
Hopey is a big sports fan and says it was one of the things that drew him to the North Andover campus.
"People around the Merrimack Valley and here at Merrimack love their sports," he said. "Sports are very important. I love them, too. We understand that this will probably be a big hit with not only students and alums but residents around the Merrimack Valley.
“I’ve seen it firsthand. They love our teams,” he said. “I think the community surrounding the school, especially North Andover and Andover, are going to embrace this move."
Hopey said the recent successes with several programs, including the Division II national champion men's lacrosse team, as well as basketball and baseball Northeast-10 champions, have given the school some momentum.
"If we had a billion dollars in endowment, we would be in a different situation," he said, referring to "elite" Division III schools. "We need to be innovative and looking to grow. Being small was not particularly good for Merrimack."
Merrimack’s president said he looks forward to the college someday playing big-time schools, such as Louisville or Michigan, in the regular season or NCAA tournament games.
"Look, it will be pretty cool looking at that ticker at the bottom of (ESPN) and seeing 'Merrimack' on there after a game," he said. "These are exciting times for us. And being Division I is now going to be part of that excitement."
Bill Burt is executive sports editor of The Eagle-Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.