Twenty-nine years after leaving Division I, Seattle University is reigniting a men's basketball tradition that includes 11 NCAA postseason tournaments.
First, an admission. I’m not the most likely person to be leading the revival of a Seattle sports tradition.
Yes, as president of Seattle University, I’m overseeing a rising sports program. I’m told I’m the only college president in history to take the same athletic program from the NCAA’s Division III to Division II, then on to Division I, or D-I, the highest level.
I once dreamed of playing basketball and even had coaches ask me to try out for basketball in each of the three high schools I attended. They saw I was tall for my age. After only a few runs down the court, they also saw I’m slow, uncoordinated and simply not much of an athlete.
I’m a Jesuit priest, a theologian and an intellectual devoted to issues of social justice. But as unlikely as it is, I’m leading what I think is one of the most exciting sports revivals in Seattle history, the return of Seattle University after nearly three decades to the top tier of collegiate competition.
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We’re back, and we’re celebrating it in a big way in the coming weeks and months. We’re starting with a celebration event on Monday at KeyArena to announce the Jan. 1, 2009, return of the men’s basketball squad to Seattle Center to take on the last D-I team it played there, Loyola Marymount University. Twenty-nine years after leaving D-I, we’re reigniting a men’s basketball tradition that includes 11 NCAA postseason tournaments.
I love the thought of a game on Jan. 1 — a new year and a new era in Northwest college sports. I love the idea of a city galvanized by new rivalries between Seattle University, the University of Washington and our Jesuit colleagues across the state, Gonzaga.
But before I get carried away, let me explain in more academic terms how this makes perfect sense.
As a Jesuit institution, we aim to educate the whole person, but we tend to stress the academic and spiritual. I want to place our athletic programs on par with our excellent academic programs and demonstrate our commitment to students’ physical development. This really makes sense on a campus like ours, with so many young, active people.
It also makes sense that we raise our profile. We are the largest independent university in the Northwest, the most comprehensive, the most metropolitan and the most diverse large university. We have an outstanding commitment to academic quality in line with our strong Catholic-Jesuit mission.
A high-profile sports program will help spread the word about our other programs, providing a window into our university. It will be a tide that raises all boats, bringing our mission, academic programs and commitment to service to the attention of more students and supporters.
John Eshelman, our chief academic officer for 18 years, drove this home to me when he said it was not a question of whether we would return to Division I, but when. Everything else about our university has been on a trajectory of greater national prominence. Our peer West Coast Jesuit schools and others of similar quality are Division I. As we realize our goal to become the premier independent university of the Northwest, we have to bring our sports programs along with us.
I became even more convinced of this during a home game two years ago. Connolly Center was packed, and as I looked across the court at the student faces, many painted the school colors of red and black, I thought, “What a healthy way for students to spend a Saturday night.”
Then I recognized one of the students. He was a winner of our prestigious Sullivan Leadership Award, with a demonstrated commitment to social justice. He was holding a sign that read, “D-II — It just ain’t good enough.”
He’s right. It just ain’t good enough.
But that’s changed. We’re back.
To all the friends of Seattle University, I’ll see you at the Key on Jan. 1.
Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., is in his 12th year as president of Seattle University.