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Don Owen: The 10 biggest sports stories involving NKU this decade? Time can’t hide the obvious answers

The NKU men’s basketball team captured the 2017 Horizon League Tournament championship with wins over Wright State, Youngstown State and Milwaukee to earn its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Time really begins accelerating once you pass your 30th birthday, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s why so many people continue to say they’re 29 several years after the milestone.

One piece of time we can’t hide is the fact another decade is about to pass. Think about the past 10 years if you’re a follower of Northern Kentucky University sports. Can you believe that 10 years ago today the Norse were members of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, competed at the NCAA Division II level and were led by a guy named Dr. Scott Eaton?

Much has changed since 2009 at NKU. The athletics program is now in Division I. NKU has been in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Norse later switched to the Horizon League. So, what were the top 10 stories for NKU sports during the past decade?

A good question, but the answers are relatively simple. Keep in mind that the hiring (John Brannen) and firing (Dave Bezold) of coaches is part of the business of being in Division I, so those stories didn’t make the list.

You could argue that NKU’s mammoth upset of West Virginia on the basketball court in 2011 should be included, but the game was an exhibition and, technically, doesn’t count. Just ask Bob Huggins. Some might also make a case for the NKU women’s soccer team’s 2016 Horizon League title and first-ever Division I NCAA Tournament berth, but it just missed the list. So did Chad Jackson’s monster dunk that made ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 plays in 2013.

Here’s a look at the past decade at NKU and the biggest sports stories that occurred in Highland Heights. I’m certain anyone over 30 will agree with my selections.

1. NKU APPROVES MOVE TO DIVISION I: Exactly 14,636 days after a humble beginning in a now-defunct high school gymnasium in 1971, NKU finally joined big-time athletics. NKU announced on Dec. 8, 2011, it had accepted an invitation to join the Atlantic Sun Conference and would begin reclassification to NCAA Division I status.

NKU president Dr. James Votruba (left) and Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart on Dec. 8, 2011. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

It wasn’t that easy, though. NKU initially believed the Ohio Valley Conference would extend an invitation for membership. Politics and lingering fears by several schools that NKU might eventually become a dominant program ended the dream of joining the OVC. You can read about that bizarre, complicated story here.

Fortunately, Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart and the other administrators were impressed by the facilities at NKU as well as the funding model for the athletics program. When the A-Sun presidents voted on extending an invitation for membership, NKU received unanimous support. The NKU Board of Regents then approved the reclassification of the athletics program to NCAA Division I.

“We’ve said for several years that we would make this move when we could field competitive Division I teams without compromising other critical university priorities,” NKU president Dr. James Votruba said on Dec. 8, 2011. “The other important component was to find a group of peer institutions that share our aspirations. The A-Sun is a great fit for us.”

NKU joined nine other members — East Tennessee State, Mercer, Florida Gulf Coast, North Florida, Stetson, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, South Carolina Upstate and Jacksonville — as part of the A-Sun.

Not bad when you consider the athletics program was born on Nov. 12, 1971, playing as Northern Kentucky State College in the ‘Cats Den at old Newport High School on Columbia Street.

2. WHAT’S UP, DOC? THE EATON SCANDAL: If not for the move to Division I, this would have easily — and unfortunately — been the top story of the decade at NKU. Dr. Scott Eaton followed hall of fame administrator Jane Meier as NKU’s athletic director in 2009. Eaton actually did a number of good things while employed at NKU. But he is remembered by many for the ethical violations/felony theft scandal that led to his dismissal as NKU’s athletic director in 2013.

Former NKU athletic director Dr. Scott Eaton. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

Before being promoted to athletic director in 2009, Eaton had worked as an assistant AD at NKU since 1998. He worked countless hours and never complained about the numerous duties. He was a respected member of the community. He was a husband and father. He loved sports and academics. To the outside world, everything appeared fine with Eaton.

That all changed in March of 2013.

The first sign something was wrong occurred while the men’s basketball team was on the West Coast to play the University of San Francisco in the season finale. Eaton had made every road trip that season. He loved basketball history, so what better place to visit than San Francisco, which won back-to-back NCAA national championships in 1955 and ’56?

Eaton was nowhere to be found the day before the game. I thought for sure I’d see him while I toured the campus and War Memorial Gymnasium, which featured many photos of former San Francisco standout and NBA Hall of Fame center Bill Russell. For NKU to be playing at San Francisco was a really big deal and a great way to cap the Norse’s first season of Division I play. No one at USF, though, had seen Eaton that day.

About 10 minutes prior to tipoff on March 14, 2013, NKU assistant coach Kevin Schappell approached me at the scorer’s table and asked if I would like to join the team for a sightseeing tour of Alcatraz the following day. Schappell said they had an extra ticket because Eaton had not shown up. And no one had any idea if he would arrive late to see NKU play San Francisco.

He never arrived.

On March 18, 2013, NKU president Geoff Mearns sent out an email to the NKU campus announcing that Eaton had been terminated from his position for ethical violations. Mearns said that Eaton failed to comply with the NKU’s ethical principles and code of conduct. In a memo the following month, Mearns revealed that Eaton admitted to “inappropriate, intimate” relationships with four NKU employees and one former student.

In addition, Eaton later pled guilty to embezzling $311,000 from NKU using a university-issued credit card. He used his NKU credit card to buy Kroger gift cards and kept reimbursements from personal expenditures. Eaton would serve two years of a 10-year prison sentence for felony theft.

3. NKU STUNS HORIZON LEAGUE HOOPS: After taking over for Dave Bezold as head coach of the NKU men’s basketball program, John Brannen endured a 9-21 campaign in 2015-16 that included seven consecutive losses to end the season. The last thing NKU fans expected a year later was any talk of Horizon League titles or NCAA Tournament berths.

But guess what happened?

NKU’s Lavone Holland (30) throws down a highlight-reel dunk against Kentucky in 2017. (NKU photo)

NKU captured the Horizon League Tournament championship with wins over Wright State, Youngstown State and Milwaukee to earn its first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. Junior guard Lavone Holland earned tournament most valuable player honors by scoring 20 points and grabbing six rebounds in the title game against Milwaukee as NKU posted a 59-53 victory.

Holland scored 56 points and dished out 16 assists during NKU’s three games in the Horizon League Tournament, which was played at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It was a remarkable turnaround from the previous season, when the Norse finished 5-13 in the Horizon League.

Having earned the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, NKU squared off against powerful Kentucky in the first round at Indianapolis. The second-seeded Wildcats posted a 79-70 win over the 15th-seeded Norse at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in front of a national television audience on CBS.

Holland netted 22 points and threw down a highlight-reel dunk to pace NKU. Freshman forward Carson Williams added 21 points and nine rebounds, while teammate Drew McDonald scored 14 points.

NKU finished with a 24-11 overall record, the Norse’s first 20-win campaign since making the move to Division I. It also marked the first season that NKU was eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

Brannen would also lead NKU to the NIT in 2018 and a return trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2019 after winning the Horizon League title for the second time in three years. In the spring, Brannen accepted the coaching job at Cincinnati after Mick Cronin was hired at UCLA.

4. NKU VOLLEYBALL ENJOYS RECORD-SETTING DEBUT: For almost any program, the move from Division II to Division I athletics is tough. Division I is a completely different landscape. Most first-year Division I programs struggle, and very few finish above .500 — regardless of the tradition they’re bringing along from Division II.

Don’t tell that to NKU’s 2012 volleyball team. The Norse began the season 8-0 and became an immediate factor in the Atlantic Sun Conference. By the time the 2012 campaign ended, the Norse owned a 25-7 mark — the best record in NCAA Division I volleyball history for a reclassifying school.

NKU’s Shelby Buschur (15) prepares to slam down a kill against North Florida in 2012. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

NKU knocked off programs such as Morehead State, Wright State and Evansville. The Norse later collected their 20th victory of the season with a sweep of in-state rival Eastern Kentucky in Regents Hall. Four of NKU’s seven losses were five-set decisions.

NKU finished the season with four consecutive wins, including a road triumph at Florida Gulf Coast. Part of the price in making the jump from Division II to Division I at that time was no postseason for four years. Despite posting a 12-6 record in the Atlantic Sun Conference, there would be no tournament action for the Norse.

“It was definitely one of the toughest challenges those first two years. You were playing for pride. You were playing to win because you’re a competitive person,” NKU head coach Liz Hart said of being unable to play in the postseason. “Everyone was so used to playing in postseason when we were in Division II. We tried to enjoy the trips that first year in Division I, and made sure we had a goal each week to get better.

“Making the transition from Division II to Division I was a challenge, and not being able to play in the postseason was difficult.”

The Atlantic Sun Conference changed its policy regarding the postseason in 2014 and permitted NKU to be eligible for all conference tournaments.

5. IT’S SNOW SWEET! NKU WINS DIVISION II NATIONAL TITLE: A freakish snowstorm in Louisville didn’t stop the NKU men’s soccer team from capturing the 2010 NCAA Division II national championship.

NKU All-American Steven Steven Beattie (5) holds the NCAA Division II national championship trophy after the Norse defeated Rollins (Fla.) in Louisville. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

On Dec. 4, 2010, Michael Holder snapped a 2-2 tie with a goal in the 65th minute to give NKU a 3-2 win over Rollins (Fla.) in the NCAA Division II national championship game. Anthony Meyer picked up the assist on the winning goal, which came on a header by Holder that popped off the goalie’s gloves and into the back of the net.

Jack Little and Jordan Grant each tallied goals for NKU, which finished with a 20-2-3 record. It marked the first-ever national title for the men’s soccer program.

Playing in Louisville was a definite advantage for NKU. So was the fact many of Rollins’ players had never experienced a snowfall.  NKU’s Steven Beattie, the Ron Lenz National Player of the Year, said the NKU crowd was a factor in the second half.

“It was absolutely amazing coming here and having a 12th man,” said Beattie, who credited the NKU faithful in the stands for the lift the defense needed late. “The last 15 minutes, with our backs against the wall, that noise from the fans really pulled us through.”

6. NKU SAYS RELUCTANT FAREWELLS TO ICONS AKER, HILS: Two of the individuals that helped build the sports program at NKU passed away this decade. Bill Aker, the man who started the baseball program at then-Northern Kentucky State College in 1971 and spent 29 years as the Norse head coach, died at age 71 on March 26, 2011. Mote Hils, the first basketball head coach in school history, passed away on Jan. 7, 2016, at the age of 81.

Aker led NKU to a pair of World Series appearances (1979, 1985) during his 29 years as head coach and finished with 807 career victories. He was also named Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year in both 1992 and 2000.

Aker’s 1977 team won a school-record 49 games and was ranked as high as No. 7 in the NCAA Division II poll. Two years later, NKU captured the first regional championship in school history.

Mote Hils (left) directed Northern Kentucky to many of its biggest victories during his nine years as men’s basketball head coach. Bill Aker (right) finished with 807 career victories at NKU in 29 years as baseball coach.

Aker earned Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year honors three times during his career. He was also named NAIA Area IV Coach of the Year in 1985 after leading NKU to the NAIA World Series.

His 1989 squad posted a 45-9 record and came within one out of qualifying for the NCAA Division II World Series. Aker won at least 30 games 11 times during his career with the Norse, and his teams recorded 40-win seasons four times.

Hils arrived at Northern after a successful career as the head basketball coach at Covington Catholic High School. He built the Norsemen program from scratch, and his team played home games at local high schools during its inaugural season in 1971-72.

In addition to his coaching duties, Hils served in a dual role as the first athletic director for Northern.

Hils directed Northern to many of its biggest victories during his nine years as head coach. His 1978 team defeated Xavier — the program’s first-ever victory against a Division I opponent — en route to the NCAA Division II Tournament. That squad also became the first 20-game winner by posting a 20-8 record and finishing No. 6 in the national rankings.

Hils, whose teams competed against powerhouse programs such as Tennessee-Chattanooga, Wright State and Tennessee State on a regular basis in the early years, finished his career with a 119-118 record. He resigned as head coach after the 1978-79 season and was inducted into the David Lee Holt NKU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

7. NKU JUMPS TO HORIZON LEAGUE: In a move that clearly demonstrated loyalty doesn’t exist in modern-day college athletics, NKU shockingly abandoned the Atlantic Sun Conference to join the Horizon League in 2015.

And Florida Gulf Coast athletic director Ken Kavanagh didn’t hold back at the news NKU was bolting without notice. “I wasn’t stunned or shocked. I’ve always felt all along they weren’t long for the A-Sun,” Kavanagh told the Fort Myers News-Press two days after the announcement. “But I never thought that a school that was so benefited by a conference membership — one, the lifeline and bridge we gave them to D-I by allowing them to become our partner.

Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart was stunned by NKU’s sudden departure to the Horizon League. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“And two, the very unique situation of the (A-Sun) membership allowing them to participate in the conference tournaments starting this (past) year. Everybody acted in good faith. Rumors were circulating over the last week or two. That was very disappointing as well. Something like this you would assume would start through our commissioner and the presidents’ council.

“It’s not like we’re in competitive bidding. It would have allowed our institutions to talk to them and say, ‘Maybe can you just wait a year?’ Just like the likes of Mercer and (East Tennessee State) did.”

NKU did not wait and became an immediate member of the Horizon League. “The addition of NKU is part of a long-range vision framed by our strategic plan,” said Horizon League commissioner Jon LeCrone. “This is a place with great potential. As we were facing membership challenges, we decided we could react or be proactive, which led us to NKU.”

Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart also wasn’t pleased with the sudden jump by NKU. “It’s not welcome news,” Gumbart told the Fort Myers News-Press. “You make a partnership, and the intent is for it to be long term. It’s a unique time in athletics. There’s parts of realignment that don’t have any rules, and that leads to some unwelcome results sometimes.”

8. DIVISION I DEBUT IN PARADISE: While the temperatures in the Greater Cincinnati plummeted, NKU played its inaugural basketball game as a Division I member in 75 degrees at the University of San Diego on Nov. 14, 2012.

San Diego spoiled NKU’s debut with a come-from-behind 65-61 victory over the Norse. It marked NKU’s first game as a Division I member in men’s basketball, 41 years and two days after the program made its debut against Calvary (Ky.) College.

NKU more than held its own on the road against an established Division I program. The Norse actually led by eight points (51-43) with 9:46 remaining in the game after freshman guard Todd Johnson buried a 3-pointer while being fouled and converted the free throw. 

San Diego, however, used a 7-0 run to cut the NKU lead to 51-50 with 7:32 left on the clock.

NKU defenders Ethan Faulkner (left) and Stretch Watson (right) trap San Diego’s Johnny Dee on Nov. 14, 2012.

Chad Jackson’s basket extended the Norse’s advantage to 53-50 with 7:09 remaining, but the Toreros continued to battle and finally took the lead at the 3:26 mark (58-57) on a short jumper by Johnny Dee.

Stretch Watson countered with a basket to give NKU a 59-58 lead, but San Diego’s Chris Anderson responded with a driving layup to put the Toreros ahead to stay. Trailing by three points (64-61) in the closing seconds, NKU’s Eshaunte Jones launched a long 3-point attempt that fell short of the mark.

Dennis Kramer sealed the win for San Diego by making one of two free throws. Kramer led the Toreros with 15 points and six rebounds, while Dee added 14 points.
“I’m glad we weren’t their first win in Division I,” Dee said of NKU. “They played very well and really hard.”

NKU head coach Dave Bezold made it clear that moral victories do not count on the court, even if it was the Norse’s first game as a Division I program. “We don’t care about close,” Bezold said. “This program has never been about being OK or being close. It’s about winning, and we didn’t do enough of the right things to win.”

Jones, who led NKU with 12 points and six rebounds, echoed his coach’s views on the close loss. “We should have won it,” he said. “We made a couple of turnovers, a couple of bad decisions on my part. We should have won it. We were up eight, and we should have taken better shots.”

Johnson finished with 11 points in his NKU debut. Jackson and Watson each added nine points for the Norse, while Jalen Billups scored eight before fouling out.

Billups also wasted no time in getting NKU on the scoreboard in the first half, as the 6-foot-6 sophomore drove down the lane for a layup to collect the Norse’s first Division I basket at the 19:27 mark.

9. DREW BREEZES TO RECORD-SETTING CAREER: Drew McDonald earned about every honor imaginable during his four-year stint with the NKU men’s basketball program. He also set school records in scoring and rebounding, leaving as NKU’s all-time career leader in both categories.

NKU’s Drew McDonald grabs his record-setting 859th career rebound against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 8, 2018. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

McDonald eclipsed LaRon Moore’s previous NKU record of 859 rebounds on Dec. 8, 2018, when he grabbed an offensive board during the first half against Eastern Kentucky. The Newport Central Catholic graduate became NKU’s all-time leading scorer on March 2, 2019, by draining a 3-pointer in the second half of a win at Green Bay.

That 3-pointer allowed him to pass Craig Sanders (2,007 points) for the Norse record.

McDonald finished his NKU career as the program’s all-time leader in seven categories: scoring (2,066 points), rebounds (1,081), games played (131), free throws made (450), free throws attempted (586), defensive rebounds (816) and defensive rebounding averaging (6.2 rpg).

The 6-foot-8 forward was also named Horizon League Player of the Year as a senior and later earned honorable mention All-America accolades from the Associated Press.

10. WINSTEL RETIRES AFTER STELLAR COACHING CAREER: After winning 636 games in 29 seasons as the women’s basketball head coach at NKU and building the program into a national powerhouse, Nancy Winstel announced her retirement on March 28, 2012.

“I was very fortunate to work at the school that I attended, and I’m not sure I would have even gone to college if NKU had not been around,” said Winstel, a 1977 graduate of NKU. “I want to thank Marilyn Scroggin Moore, who was my coach in college, for being the person I wanted to be like the most when I was a player.

Nancy Winstel led NKU to a pair of NCAA Division II national championships (2000 and 2008) and finished with a record of 636-214. (Photo by Jeff McCurry)

“I also want to thank Jane Meier for hiring me. Jane is a great mentor and a great friend, and I will love her forever. Most of all, I want to thank all of the players who have worn the NKU uniform proudly over the years. I will love them forever and always be here for them. I will always be a Lady Norse…because once a Lady Norse, always a Lady Norse.”

Winstel led NKU to a pair of NCAA Division II national championships (2000 and 2008) and finished with a record of 636-214 as the Norse head coach. She was named the national coach of the decade by Women’s Division II Bulletin in 2009, and her basketball program was also tabbed the best during that decade by that same publication.

A six-time Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year, Winstel was named the WBCA Division II National Coach of the Year in 1999-2000 after leading NKU to its first national title. The Norse posted a 32-2 record that season and won 24 consecutive games en route to the school’s first-ever national championship.

In 2008, Winstel reinforced what most already knew – that NKU was one of the nation’s elite programs and its head coach was possibly the country’s most outstanding mentor – by leading the Norse to the NCAA Division II national championship in Kearney, Neb.

Contact Don Owen at don@nkytrib.com and follow him on Twitter at @dontribunesport

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