By Bill Burt
---- — LOWELL — Six years ago, UMass Lowell Chancellor Martin Meehan had to fight tooth and nail to get UMass system trustees to save the school’s hockey program at the Division 1 level.
Yesterday, the UMass trustees approved elevating all of UMass Lowell’s athletic programs — male and female — to the NCAA's Division 1 beginning in September.
The school has accepted an invitation to join the nine-school America East Conference, which also is home to the state university of three other New England states — University of New Hampshire, University of Maine and University of Vermont.
“This is an important day for this university,” said Meehan, the former seven-term congressman from Lowell.
“The irony is that when we came up with our strategic plan going forward in 2007, athletics wasn’t a critical part of that,” said Meehan. “But eight months ago a committee, headed by an academic, was asked to look into athletics and recreation. It wasn’t a ‘Div. 1’ committee. What they found was if we were going build a national profile, increase our alumni opportunities and grow our university, this was something we needed to do.”
Under Meehan’s leadership, UMass Lowell has been riding a wave of positive momentum.
The university has increased enrollment in each of his six years, while pioneering research in physics, nano technology, plastics engineering and materials engineering in such fields as the “Baseball Lab,” and constructing seven new buildings on campus.
The most recent U.S. New & World Report ranked UMass Lowell 170th out of the 4,000-plus four-year colleges and universities, which puts it in the upper tier (Top 200) for the third consecutive year.
The 32-member committee, headed by UMass Lowell Vice Provost for Graduate Education, Don Pierson, in the end made this recommendation after unanimous support.
Pierson said this committee, which was formed after a two-year “20-20 Vision” Committee, originally set out to improve the school’s status with both athletics and recreation, with the thought of enrollment continuing to grow.
In fact, the school’s recreation center, which is across the street from LaLecheur Park, is one of the most popular buildings on campus.
“One of the things we looked at was we wanted to see what our peer schools were doing,” said Pierson. “These were research institutions that ranked in the upper tier (in U.S. News & World Report). We identified eight schools, including UNH, URI, Virginia Commonwealth, Georgia State, San Diego State and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Lo and behold, we realized each of them was a Division 1 athletic school. It was a real eye-opener.”
When the committee went forward and started looking at university’s facilities, they came to realize the existing facilities were not only up to Division 1 caliber, but in some cases better than most schools in the country.
Tsongas Arena, which the school bought from the city and state in 2010, has become one of the top collegiate hockey arenas in the country thanks to $10 million in renovations. LaLecheur Park, where UMass Lowell baseball plays all of its home games and is also home to the Red Sox short season-A team, Lowell Spinners, also ranks among the best college ballparks in the country at all levels.
“When we bought Tsongas (Arena), it was losing about $1.1 million a year,” said Meehan. “But honestly, that is one of the key reasons we are probably here today, moving to Division 1. That is a special facility that can be used for men’s and women’s basketball, too.”
UMass Lowell’s performance on the athletic fields the last decade appears to have also played a major role in expediting the process, too.
The only Division 1 program at the school, its hockey team, has performed exceedingly well under second-year coach Norm Bazin on and off the ice, making it to the NCAA Division 1 quarterfinals last winter. The current team is ranked 11th in the country and, as impressive, 15th in attendance nationally as a member of highly regarded Hockey East.
The women’s field hockey team, which won a Division 2 national championship two years ago, could probably be a national contender immediately in Division 1.
Both of the men’s and women’s basketball head coaches, Greg Herenda and Sarah Behn, have not only elevated their respective programs nationally in Division 2, but they have Division 1 coaching experience and have applied at Division 1 schools as head coaches recently.
The baseball program has more than three decades of excellence in Division 2, which has continued under, Ken Harring.
Since joining the Northeast-10 Conference in 2000, UMass Lowell has garnered 59 conference titles, 104 post-season appearances in NCAA tournaments, 214 All-American Awards and 32 Academic All-American honors.
“I said it then and I still say it now, the Northeast-10 is the best Division 2 conference in the country,” said UMass Lowell Director of Athletics, Dana Skinner, who resides with his family in Haverhill.
“It allowed us allowed us to advance our mission and our programs,” said Skinner. “It was the right decision to join the conference in 2000 and it’s the right decision to join America East now.”
Skinner said that UMass Lowell currently has 17 intercollegiate sports. The university will be adding men’s and women’s lacrosse in 2014-15, giving 19. There is a reason lacrosse will be added.
According to Skinner, there are “sports of emphasis” in America East - soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and lacrosse in the spring.
Skinner said the forward thinking of Meehan, which included several purchases and new construction on campus, no doubt was paramount in getting to yesterday’s decision.
“From the time he came here (in 2007), Marty set a bar that challenged everybody to pursue excellence, relentlessly,” said Skinner. “When you set a bar like that, you look at things a little bit differently. We would not be having this conversation had he not provided that leadership.
“Quite frankly, I believe Marty’s political experience is very valuable to UMass Lowell,” said Skinner. “There are a lot of mine fields you have to avoid to do a lot of things he has been able to do. You have to get the student body, the faculty, the president’s office and the Board of Trustees all on the same page. He always looked at the role athletics could play in advancing this university. Today is a great day.”
Facilities up for overhaul Here is a proposal to improve facilities at UMass Lowell over the next three years: Year 1 Replace field hockey surface with D-I quality turf Upgrade Costello Gym to D-I level for basketball Replace natural grass soccer field with artificial grass Year 2 Renovate team locker rooms Further renovate of Costello Gym Upgrade office space for coaches & staff Year 3 Identify indoor practice facility Provide High-Quality Facilities More coaches and more compliance-academic support coming Increase coaching & staff positions over 5-year period according to the following priorities Assistant coaches in America East Sports of Emphasis Head coaches in men's & women's lacrosse in 2014-15/assistants the next year Assistant coaches in all other sports NCAA compliance & academic support America East Conference Albany Binghamton Hartford Maine UMBC UNH Stonybrook Vermont Boston University* * BU is leaving for the Patriot League in September