September 14, 2009

Finlandia adding football in 2012

Finlandia University is in Hancock, Mich., up on the state's upper peninsula and miles from the rest of Division III.
Finlandia University photo; Google Maps

Finlandia, a Division III school in the upper peninsula of Michigan, is adding football in 2012, D3sports.com has learned.

The school, which was known for many years as Suomi College, has 464 full-time undergraduates as of its last report to the U.S. Department of Education, but could boost that significantly with one class of football players.

"A school that starts football tends to bring out between 80 and 120 freshmen for the first year," D3sports.com executive editor Pat Coleman recently told the Associated Press. "You have to look at the bottom line, in Division III, everybody's paying tuition -- they're getting whatever they're getting in financial aid, but the school isn't giving scholarships. So that money goes to the bottom line.

"A lot of kids who play that first year don't play all four years. Usually that graduating class that comes in at 120 ends up at about 20-25. But a lot of the kids stay at the school."

Boosting enrollment is the driver behind a plan the school recently announced with the city of Hancock, Mich., where Finlandia will offer free tuition for the next 12 years to admitted graduates of Hancock Central High School in exchange for city school facilities, most notably a former middle school building.

"As part of this whole process we have two strategic priorities for the institution," said Finlandia's athletic director, Chris Salani. "First is the conversion of the middle school to college of health sciences building, and second is use of the athletic fields.

"Football is actually going to be a capstone program for us over the next three years."

The school plans to hire a coach early in 2011 in order to prepare to take the field with a varsity program in 2012.

Finlandia is geographically isolated from other Division III institutions. The closest school with football is St. Scholastica, in Duluth, Minn., a four-hour drive or 217 miles. St. Norbert is 220 miles, UW-Stevens Point is 221 miles, Lawrence is 241 miles and UW-Oshkosh is 261. The school is an independent in most sports but hopes football will help it gain conference affiliation.

"We've identified two viable options from a Finlandia standpoint, one being the UMAC and the other being the Northern Athletics Conference," Salani told D3sports.com. "We have approached both entities previously on the idea of affiliation and throughout that process either the timing wasn't correct or the programming correct for either entity."

The school already meets future Division III standards for sports sponsorship, which is 10 varsity sports for schools with fewer than 1,000 full-time students, or 12 for larger schools. But football isn't the only sport on the docket. Finlandia is adding women's tennis and golf, reviving its suspended nordic skiing program and looking at men's volleyball and wrestling.

"We have schools where there's a recruiting pool available," Salani said in referencing wrestling. "Perhaps we would be a niche program in the area, plus that may give us another conference affiliation opportunity.

Like at many Division III schools, "athletics programs are being supported to help drive enrollment," Salani said. "At the end of this process, roughly 35,  possibly 40 percent of 800 students will be student-athletes."

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