This day felt like it was inevitable.
As Ted Gumbart welcomed the Highlanders into the Atlantic Sun Conference as a full member, firmly shaking the hand of NJIT president Dr. Joel Bloom, it feels like the end of a journey – one that always had a planned outcome of joining a league, but had hardly materialized in almost a decade of work.
“I did tell a colleague, I said when we bring them back into the room, make sure you look them in the eye because you’re going to see a sparkle,” Gumbart said as the conference unanimously accepted NJIT as a member. “Yesterday when we announced it we got to see two gentlemen have that sparkle.”
Make no mistake that NJIT’s admission to the Atlantic Sun was a long journey, endured by many athletes, coaches and administrators who are no longer at the school, but it all eventually paid off.
“Today is a defining moment for our program 10 years in the making,” NJIT athletic director Lenny Kaplan said. “It’s where we are no longer another Division I team representing ourselves, but one with an opportunity to make a larger statement representing the A-Sun as we take the next steps in the growth of our program.”
Friday’s celebration was at least one decade in the making, from deciding back on Nov. 4, 2004 to make the transition from Division II into Division I. That journey took another step on Sept. 1, 2009 when the school became eligible to compete for Division I championships and reach NCAA tournaments, but the question lingered for over five seasons which conference they would join.
NJIT had several missteps along the way, they finished the 2007-08 season 0-30 and set a new record winless streak, by losing 51 games in a row. It was a long journey down the road, Engles’ team ended that streak in his first season, but finished 1-30 doing it. Then his team competed for four straight Great West Conference titles, but the league of five independents did not hold sway in competing for a postseason bid. When the league disbanded as four of its schools found new homes, NJIT was the only one without a seat in the conference musical chairs of the past decade.
“It’s been hard,” Engles said reflecting on being an independent program before turning to the excitement of joining the Atlantic Sun. “This is the future now for our school, this is the future for us, this is us moving forward.”
“The past is behind us. The one thing I do want to say about the past, we need to earn this as student athletes, coaches, administrators. This is not something that happens lightly.”
It could be said that a turning point in the Highlanders’ quest to join a conference was their 72-70 upset of Michigan, turning a guarantee game into a huge windfall. From there, Engles and the program seized the national media fanfare, as well as the opportunity to make sure their publicity blitz was felt around the area that they were ready to join a conference.
“We got those schematics, we walk around with them like a big chain around our neck,” Engles joked back in May about how they market the construction of their $100 million arena.
For some reason, NJIT was rebuffed by more local conferences—the Northeast and America East—but it was not for lack of trying for the Highlanders. The latter conference all but declared NJIT’s chances of joining their league hopeless back in March.
Bloom joked that as they pursued the Atlantic Sun over the course of the last month, he would send messages to Kaplan asking for progress and heard one consistent message back.
“I’d say ‘how we doing?’ and he said I just got an email from Ted Gumbart and Ted has said that ‘we’re making progress,'” Bloom said. “So I threatened Lenny, I’m going to bring a t-shirt today, give it to Ted and say we’re making progress.”
Ultimately, the Highlanders will may have to thank Northern Kentucky, who ironically joined the Atlantic Sun conference as part of their four-year transition into Division I, a luxury NJIT did not have when it joined as an independent. On May 11 they decided to leave for the Horizon League, which created an opening in the conference that could be filled by the Newark school.
“We’ve had conversations and Lenny may not have known it, but part of my job is to always be aware of the future possibilities and sometimes timing matters, sometimes it doesn’t matter,” Gumbart said as to whether Northern Kentucky leaving prompted interest in NJIT. “I think we were very pleased that the more in depth the investigation got the more confirmed that this was a great move for us, regardless of any other movement.”
The big winners in this? Jim Engles and the Highlanders basketball program, who went 21-12 and reached the CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinals. Now Engles will have no worries lingering over his head like an elephant in the room of his office. Scheduling will be easier, as he will not need to find 29 different games.
Jocular would be an understatement to describe Engles’ mood as he paced to the podium, as he asked if he could take the Atlantic Sun banner with NJIT on it and use it as a blanket. He told me last month that finding a conference will allow him to work on his golf game instead of scrambling every day in hopes that his program finds a new home.
How can NJIT raise the bar for this coming season? Remember they return almost every key piece from a run that produced a top 150 RPI ranking, a CIT semifinal appearance and 20-plus wins for the first time in their Division I history. They also get back Terrence Smith who averaged 12.2 ppg over the course of the 2013-14 season.
The programs have been built up, the basketball program appears to be poised for a strong season. Their first NCAA tournament bid will be possible when they open on Nov. 14 at Kentucky. It will be possible to win the conference, even when the likes of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast stand in their way.
“This is the company we want to be in,” Bloom said of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Joining the Atlantic Sun will cause other difficulties, mostly associated with the amount of travel the New Jersey school will have to endure to face their southern conference foes. The journey to find a conference may have concluded, but now NJIT will have the chance to dig in and chase championships.
Taking that next step to break into the NCAA tournament will make the last decade of a journey worth it.
Ryan Restivo wrote the America East conference preview for the 2014-15 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. He covers the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the America East conference among others for Big Apple Buckets. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanarestivo or contact Ryan at rrestivo[at]nycbuckets.com.
One thought on “NJIT Finds Its First Step In Joining Atlantic Sun Conference”
Finally a sensible and play-safe conference accepts NJIT as full member. It puzzled me why other geographically more suitable conference would rather risk losing (another) women’s tennis AQ than accept NJIT as full member after losing men’s tennis AQ. The only logical reason seems to be NJIT did not opt to add women’s softball to make someone happy.