Popo: Don't forget, the NKU Norse took baby steps before dance steps

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Several years ago, I was leaving a fundraiser at the studios of WCET as Jim Votruba was arriving. Jim was Northern Kentucky University president at the time. We knew each other a little because we sat together at a couple of luncheons, so we said a quick hello.

As President Votruba started to walk away, he said "Just a minute, I'm hearing from a lot of people who want us to go Division I, what do you think?"

First of all, I was stunned that he would ask. I had great admiration for Jim because had taken a slab of concrete and turned it into a real living, breathing university.

I remember muttering something about the difficult task he would face. I said something about NKU having established a nice niche within Division II, and I thought it would be smart to stay there. I thought an upward move would be very challenging.

He mentioned that it would be very expensive, so I figured that would be the end of that discussion.

It's not the first time I've been wrong -- it won't be the last, either.

I was basing my opinion on what I had seen over the years. I remember accompanying a photographer for a couple of Northern Kentucky basketball games when I first got to Channel 9 in the winter of 1980. We were going to a boys game at Newport Central Catholic and then a men's game at NKU.

The NewCath gym was shoulder-to-shoulder. It was hot, loud and spirited. You couldn't hear yourself talk.

Meanwhile, Regents Hall at NKU was basically a library. You could hear the squeak of every pivot, the call of every coach. The game was a virtual secret; the only fans were next-of-kin.

That was my first impression of NKU basketball, and it didn't change for quite a while.

Martin "Mote" Hils was the first coach of the Norse in the early 70s. He won consistently at CovCath with assistant Hep Cronin, Mick's dad. Mote got the program off to a solid start.

He gave way to Mike Beitzel in the late 70s. He also had some winning teams that very few people noticed. Mike left in the late 80s for Hanover College -- not exactly a vertical move. But it was the right move for Mike. He had a tremendous career at Hanover.

Kenny Shields took over in 1988 and gave NKU a greater local presence. Kenny is the eternal optimist, very much the Sparky Anderson of basketball. He's Northern Kentucky's best friend -- not just the school, but the entire region.

Kenny filled his roster with locals and raised the level of the program: Andy and Kevin Listerman came from CovCath, Shannon Minor from Colerain, Paul Cluxton from Lynchburg Clay. He added Reggie Talbert and LaRon Moore from Lexington and took his teams to back-to-back Division II national championship games in 1996 and 1997. They finished second each year.

NKU had created a ripple, but still not a wave of support.

Dave Bezold followed Kenny and had the same influence -- a local guy with local kids, but few fans showed interest.

As I mentioned to President Votruba, NKU was a Division II powerhouse. Nancy Winstel led the NKU women to a pair of national basketball titles. The men's soccer team won the national championship in 2010.

It was a nice cozy niche: Bigger than Mount St. Joseph and Thomas More, but not as imposing as Xavier and UC.

I figured Division I was inevitable when the Bank of Kentucky Center -- now BB&T Arena -- was built. But its size made the basketball crowds look even dinkier. I saw a big turnout one night at a Paul Simon concert, and I saw friends and families turn out in big numbers for graduation a few years later.

Still, basketball was neither a big draw nor a hot topic. I guess that's why John Brannen was picked to take Bezold's place: He had some big school experience.

And now the program is dancing.

Perhaps this is the turning point. This exuberance might be dashed by UK in a matter of minutes and a flood of alley-oops Friday night, but maybe fans and students will feel the potential and take advantage of the momentum.

Please, get on that bandwagon and stay there.

I'd like to see NKU basketball take off in Division I. The program has crawled and toddled long enough.

The other day, someone on television called the NKU basketball program an "overnight success." Really, it only took about half a century.

John Popovich is Sports Director for WCPO - 9 On Your Side. You can contact him at JPopovich@WCPO.com or on Twitter at @Popo_WCPOSports

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