The picture is definitely rosier at North Carolina Central University these days. Since Chancellor James Ammons arrived in 2001, NCCU has secured $121 million in state funding for a variety of construction and renovation projects, including a new showcase science building. A biotech training and research facility is slated for completion in 2006. Few university music departments can top Central’s announcement in January that the Branford Marsalis Quartet would serve as artists-in-residence this year. The changes continue a trend established by former Chancellor Julius Chambers, who during his tenure transformed Central from a chip in the UNC system poker game into a player at the table. Despite its meteoric progress, however, Central still has a long way to go before it achieves anything resembling equity with the better-funded, high-profile and hyper-ambitious state schools to its south and east.

Ammons has been touting another strategy to accelerate the university to the proverbial next level–moving its athletic programs from the NCAA’s Division II into Division I (the football program would move up to the second-tier Division I-AA). The benefits, according to Ammons, athletics director Bill Hayes and other boosters, would include additional revenues for the university and an elevated national profile. The key remaining question is apparently not if, but when. “This would be a huge decision for the university,” the Chancellor told the NCCU Board of Trustees last September. “We have to figure out how to make the switch and make it work.”

Figuring out how to make the switch isn’t a serious problem, as all that’s really required is a $15,000 fee to the NCAA and various commitments to the athletic program, including two new sports and a batch of additional scholarships. Making it work, however, is a whole different ballgame. As other schools with similar aspirations have discovered, playing in the big time can be a high-stakes crapshoot that ultimately costs millions of dollars and turns athletics programs into punching bags, and punchlines.

Consider Savannah State, which made a similar jump to Division I in 2002. Its basketball team just completed only the second winless season in the last 50 years of NCAA competition. The football team went 0-12 last season; the women’s softball team was outscored 75-0 in a doubleheader. The athletics program is currently under investigation by the NCAA in the wake of a steroid scandal and other problems. The athletics director was fired, and critics are calling for the resignation of school president Carlton Brown.

Savannah State isn’t the only school that has found Division I to be inhospitable. Morris Brown College in Atlanta disbanded its entire athletic program in 2003 after its move to the top ranks practically bankrupted the school. Longwood University in Virginia just completed its first D-I basketball season with just one win. Ammons’ former employer, Florida A&M University, aborted its much-ballyhooed jump from Division I-AA to I-A in football last year after the trustees determined that the move would be financially disastrous and had been ill-advised in the first place; the athletics director who had pushed the switch resigned.

The promise of fat paydays and athletic glory can fall short for many reasons. First and foremost, it costs major bucks to participate at the Division I level. N.C. Central Sports Information Director Kyle Serba has said that Central’s annual athletics budget would virtually double from its current $2.2 million in order to pay for the new sports, scholarships and coaches as well as increased travel expenses for its teams and other related costs. That estimate may be low–Howard, Hampton and Bethune-Cookman, which play in the Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (which has been mentioned as a possible affiliation for Central), have budgets between $6 million and $9 million. To compete with those universities and others at that level, Central would likely have to match them dollar for dollar or at least come close.

And that’s only the beginning. In order to effectively compete for recruits and entice schools to play in Durham, NCCU will have to expand and upgrade its basketball arena, football stadium and other facilities. Unless Central can work out a deal with the city to play at the old Durham Athletic Park, fielding a baseball team will require construction of a new baseball stadium with no obvious place for one on campus.

The basketball arena improvements are part of Central’s strategic plan, but the details–including the price tag–have yet to be determined. Plans for the football stadium are even more preliminary; athletics director Hayes says that getting the stadium in better shape is “one of the ways that we can increase revenue,” and a committee is studying how to make it more “fan friendly” with better parking facilities. Though he hasn’t run any numbers yet, even the most cosmetic changes won’t come cheap.

And as many universities have discovered, once they get on the spending treadmill, it’s hard to get off. In their book on the business of college athletics, The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values, authors James Shulman and William Bowen accurately noted that “The mantra of the need to ‘spend money to make money’ can be used to justify a great deal of spending, without leading an institution to any destination other than a deeper financial hole.”

Without sufficient resources, however, Central is more likely to resemble Savannah State or the many programs mired in perpetual mediocrity than its more successful peers, which would defeat whatever purpose Division I status might serve. Marlynn Jones, a former Central employee and NCAA compliance official, made the point in a recent lecture at Winston-Salem State. “There seems to be a perception at Division II [schools] that they will be perceived better if they compete at Division I,” Jones said. “But you are only going to get that better perception if you are going to be competitive.”

Whatever the upfront and future costs to N.C. Central of a Division I promotion, they’ll have to be offset. Hayes has said that the money will come from alumni and corporate sponsorships as well as increased ticket revenues from games against better teams. But none of that is guaranteed to meet the demand for cash. Increasing student fees is another option, but the burden of regular tuition and fee hikes have already stretched many student budgets to the breaking point.

All that may be why Central has yet to formally announce the move, even though Ammons has been framing it as a fait accompli for more than two years. “We’re going to prepare for that almost immediately,” Ammons told The Herald-Sun in January 2003. “We have had a committee that’s working on putting a proposal together that would go to the NCAA. We know that we’re going to have to expand our stadium, there are going to have to be some upgrades to facilities, we’ll have to be able to offer more scholarships than we’re offering now. But that committee is working to put all of that together. Once they do that, then we’re going to go out and do whatever it takes in order to get there.”

The idea apparently languished for awhile, as then-athletics director Lin Dawson was fired as part of a department shakeup that also saw the departure of the football and basketball coaches. According to media accounts, Central commissioned a feasibility study last August that was “essentially completed” a month later, clearing the way for a possible application to the NCAA in December. But the deadline came and went. Hayes, who is working on the feasibility study along with several other athletics department and administration officials, says they were given an extension last year, and that a report complete with budget will be ready for review in mid- to late June.

It’s hard to imagine how all the numbers for such a complex equation will be ready in two months, especially given that many big-ticket items haven’t yet advanced beyond the conceptual stage. And the pronouncements by Ammons about doing “whatever it takes” to make the move raises questions about how objective the analysis is going to be.

Even if Central is able to generate enough money to pay the D-I bills, questions will remain about the essential premise behind the move. The idea that Division I athletics will generate new revenues for the university’s general fund is not borne out be the facts, says Bruce Johnson, an economics professor at Centre College in Kentucky who has studied the issue. “There is very little evidence that successful sports teams encourage giving to academics,” Johnson says. “[Donors] give to athletics instead of academics.”

But perception is important, whether internal or external, and that’s ultimately the real issue here. Several of Central’s traditional rivals have jumped to Division I the past decade, and Winston-Salem State announced last year that it would follow suit. North Carolina A&T has made noise about canceling the annual Aggie-Eagle Classic football game with Central after next season because, as the A&T athletics director said in September, it did his school “no good” to play an opponent in a lesser division. Central naturally wants to keep pace on the playing field as well as in the classroom. As Hayes told the N&O, “We’d rather take a move toward universities more like ourselves.”

That’s all well and good, but Central has other priorities that trump a speculative, multi-million-dollar venture primarily intended to boost institutional ego. The university is facing substantial legislative cutbacks in academic budgets across the UNC system and is already suffering growing pains from the rapid expansion of its student body (38 percent in the last five years) that in part led to the ouster of provost Lucy Reuben in December. Even after the rest of its house is more in order, Central should avoid making the switch until the university is fully prepared to make the investment necessary to not simply exist at the Division I level, but be successful there. Anything less would be a loser.