Move to Division II embraces a blend of academic excellence & competitive sports
For nearly 30 years, David Skolen has, more or less, called Daemen College home. First as a student-athlete and later as a coach and athletics administrator, Skolen has experienced all that Daemen athletics has to offer. With a contagious buzz around campus and a newfound importance placed on athletics in light of the college’s pursuit of NCAA Division II membership, there’s no one better person to tell the story than the man who has more collective years on campus than most of the current athletics staff combined.
“Throughout the years, I’ve really enjoyed all aspects of our athletics programs, even when things weren’t taken as seriously as they are now,” said Skolen. “Now, with the transition to NCAA Division II, it’s hard to describe, but I think there’s a general excitement around campus and in the community about what we’re doing.”
After a successful career competing on the hardwood for the men’s basketball team, it was a natural transition into coaching. Joining the men’s basketball staff as an assistant under current head coach Don Silveri, he held the position for two years when, at age 24, he was named the college’s head women’s basketball coach. Since taking the reins 22 years ago to lead the Wildcats, the team has accumulated more than 440 wins and 10 national tournament appearances. Paralleling Skolen’s successes as both a player and a coach has been a tremendous amount of growth in the athletic department.
“When I came in as a student-athlete, and even when I first began coaching, men’s and women’s basketball were the only sports we had,” Skolen said. “Our staff was minimal and resources were hard to come by, but we made do. That’s all changed now. Our teams take charter buses to their games and team meals on road trips are at nice restaurants. There have been a lot of steps taken to improve the student-athlete experience.”
The obvious difference between then and now is the number of sport offerings. With the addition of men’s and women’s tennis and indoor track and field for the 2012-13 academic year, Daemen now offers 14 varsity sports – a far cry from Skolen’s days as a student-athlete. The growth of Daemen athletics into what it has become today began with the addition of the women’s volleyball program in 1997, which was aided by several factors, according to Skolen.
“There were really three key things that happened in the late 1990s,” he said. “First, the arrival of Dr. Martin Anisman as our college president, and then the promotion of Don Silveri to athletic director really proved to be a catalyst for our growth. Also, our conference (the Keystone- Empire Collegiate Conference) disbanded and in order to join the American Mideast Conference, we needed to add sports, so we did.”
Swapping stories over breakfast at a Bethesda, Md. hotel on a recent road trip, Skolen and Silveri reminisced about Daemen’s days as a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) affiliate, and specifically the college’s time spent in the American Mideast Conference (AMC).
“It was a good time for Daemen athletics when we were in the AMC,” said Silveri. “It’s really when we went from a little-known program to gaining some national prominence.”
Silveri, along with then-Vice President for Student Affairs (now Vice President for Institutional Advancement) Dr. Richanne C. Mankey, led the charge for Daemen to pursue NCAA Division II membership once it became clear in 2010 that the AMC would be disbanding with most of its members choosing the NCAA route as well.
“We had to look at all of our options. Do we become an NAIA independent, or do we pursue NCAA membership? If we go to the NCAA, what’s the best fit for us – Division II or III?” said Silveri. “To me, it was evident that in order for us to keep the things that make us a unique athletic department in the Buffalo area we needed to go to NCAA Division II.”
When the decision to move to Division II was made by the college administration and supported by the Daemen Board of Trustees, it was met with instant approval from the coaching staff, recalled Skolen.
“The NCAA affiliation brings an immediate recognition that we didn’t have previously,” said Skolen. “The NAIA was great, but it wasn’t that well known in this area. Now, when I tell recruits and other people that we are an NCAA Division II school, they pretty much know right away the level of competition that I’m talking about.”
Ushering in this new era of Daemen athletics officially got underway in July 2012 when the NCAA Division II Membership Committee accepted the college’s application for membership. Since then, a bevy of changes have occurred, most of which were necessary to align Daemen with the model for NCAA Division II athletics and the three-year membership process. Silveri rescinded his administrative responsibility in order to assume full-time coaching responsibilities and William Morris was hired to lead the department. To meet NCAA Division II requirements, full-time staffers have quadrupled, from three to 12, in the last four years.
“Our student-athletes are not only excelling in the classroom, but also on the field.”
– William Morris
Other developments have happened as well, making Daemen athletics an evolving department. To increase the visibility of its intercollegiate teams, the college partnered with SIDEARM Sports, a leader in the industry, to launch a new athletics Web site in 2012. Trademarked logos were created and introduced to Wildcat fans (#DCWildcatNation). The logos were prominently placed on walls inside Lumsden Gymnasium as part of a nearly $20,000 facelift.
Also, the college became an active member of the East Coast Conference (ECC) within NCAA Division II. The growth of Daemen athletics has led to a buzz on campus and in the community about what the future holds.
“We’ve taken some real positive strides in the last few years to not only meet the benchmarks that the NCAA has set for us, but also to grow the Daemen Wildcat brand. We’re beginning to see the fruits of our labor. Our teams have been immediately competitive in the ECC,” Morris said, noting that the men’s basketball team won the regularseason conference championship in 2013-14 – the team’s first year of competition in the ECC. “Our student-athletes are not only excelling in the classroom, but also on the field. We have a ways to go but there are several initiatives in place to ensure that we keep the momentum building and to keep Daemen’s athletic successes on the rise.”
Morris said that incrementally increasing the allotment of athletic scholarship funding as well as necessary facility upgrades remain the immediate focus moving forward.
To support these initiatives, the athletic department, in collaboration with the Daemen Office of Institutional Advancement, launched in December the “Move to 2” campaign, the first major fund-raising campaign for athletics the college has ever undertaken.
“Daemen’s ‘Move to 2’ campaign reflects the need to look outside regular institutional operating funds to support our student-athletes and the college’s existing 14 intercollegiate athletic programs,” said Mankey, who now spearheads institutional fund-raising efforts. “Our transition into Division II in the NCAA has the entire campus and region excited about Daemen Wildcat athletics. Our ‘Move to 2’ campaign will reach out to former Daemen student-athletes, other alumni, friends, families, and fans of Daemen to help support this historic transition into Division II NCAA athletic competition.”
According to Morris, some ideas the campaign hopes to address are being finalized, but he emphasized the immediate focus is on athletic scholarships. “We have substantial work to do in the realm of athletic scholarships,” he said. “Our strategic plan calls for us to increase our scholarship budget to be in the top half of the ECC.”
To get there, the first major initiative within the “Move to 2” campaign is the “Wildcat 100,” an initiative with the potential to add at least $150,000 to the athletic scholarship budget over the next three years by seeking 100 donors who will pledge a minimum of $1,500. “Wildcat 100” is being co-chaired by Morris and 2001 graduate Anthony (Tony) J.M. Jones.
“Money raised through the ‘Wildcat 100’ will go directly to athletic scholarships, and will serve to increase our competitiveness in an already competitive conference. We are incredibly fortunate that Tony has agreed to lend a helping hand with our ‘Move to 2’ campaign,” Morris said.
“In the last decade,” he added, “Tony has experienced much success with his various endeavors and for us to be able to tap into his expertise is obviously a significant achievement in itself. I know Tony is very passionate about his time as a student-athlete here and I look forward to working closely with him on this project so we can provide that kind of experience for our current and future student-athletes.”
Web site pages have been set up for both “Move to 2” and “Wildcat 100” at wildcats.daemen.edu. All donations are tax-deductible.
With the transition to NCAA Division II in full swing, and the “Move to 2” and “Wildcat 100” initiatives in place, Skolen remains increasingly optimistic about the future of Daemen athletics.
“It’s a fun time to be here at Daemen and involved in athletics,” he said. “If we can duplicate the success we’ve had in the last 25 years, the sky is the limit for what Daemen Athletics can be. I’m certainly looking forward to being here – being home – to witness all the good things that lie ahead of us.”