ASHLAND — With the promise of more financial support than ever before, Southern Oregon University's athletics department unveiled a plan Thursday for a potential move from the NAIA level to NCAA Division II in the next five to seven years.

ASHLAND — With the promise of more financial support than ever before, Southern Oregon University's athletics department unveiled a plan Thursday for a potential move from the NAIA level to NCAA Division II in the next five to seven years.

Following a four-month study of the university's athletics program, SOU President Mary Cullinan and her cabinet approved a recommendation that involves a set of benchmarks and criteria necessary for making such a move.

The recommendation was made by a task force appointed by Cullinan, and marks the first time a plan has been put on paper to address the athletic department's future.

It also marks a change in how much the university has agreed to set aside monies from its general fund for athletics. The program has been financed by student fees, lottery dollars and donations by alumni over the years — with a small percentage coming via the general fund — and has annually struggled to make ends meet.

"We really have not been budgeting for athletics in the way that we should be," said Cullinan of the necessary increase.

Cullinan said the university has been planning for the future in every other part of the institution since she became president in 2006, and it was only right that the athletics department became a more concrete part of those discussions.

"We've had financial issues ever since I arrived and so every year we look at it and say, 'Well, this isn't the time to take money out of the general fund and put it into athletics,'" she added. "Even though we still don't have a lot of money, we need to have a plan and we can't keep asking the students to fund athletics or rely heavily on lottery money, which goes up and down. We need a stable and reliable source of funding for athletics."

The short-term goal, according to Cullinan, is to strive for "excellence" at the NAIA level before attempting a leap up in classification. That goal has more to do with funding at a level above the NAIA scholarship median of $800,000 and providing sufficient facilities than simply wins and losses by the 12 university teams involved.

Currently, SOU's athletic programs use a scholarship budget that is just over $400,000. To reach the NCAA Division II median, the school's scholarship funding would need to increase to roughly $1.3 million.

"We're not in a position to go Division II right now," said Matt Sayre, SOU's interim athletics director. "For us, it's about a $3 million prospect right now. Jumping in right now would put us at the bottom of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in scholarship funding and we didn't think that was where we wanted to be. We wanted to make sure that whatever we do with our athletics program, we have an opportunity to be successful."

Sayre was especially pleased with the university's commitment to help fund the athletics program. Final numbers for the incremental allotment won't be available until more information is gathered.

"These next couple years are going to be difficult because we know what the state funding is going to look like," he said, "but over the course of the timeline, the institution is going to start to try to get us more in line with the regional curve. How long that will take us to get there, I'm not sure. But as we get more institutional funding, we can free up lottery dollars to put towards scholarships."

Sayre said the department has had to invest some of the lottery dollars it receives toward salaries and operational expenses instead of scholarships. The maximum amount of scholarship dollars allowed at the NAIA level is roughly $1.5 million, and $2.6 million at the NCAA Division II level. SOU is at just over $428,000.

The school doles out about 30 total scholarships among its 12 programs, with most fractioned off to help stretch the dollars as far as possible. The football team utilizes a total of about eight scholarships, while there are two apiece allotted to the men and women's track and field programs.

In contrast, SOU is scheduled to play a Division II Central Washington football team this fall that has the benefit of 24 scholarships.

"We need to find a way to make sure football has scholarships available to them so they can be successful against the teams we have to play with," said Sayre. "Along with that, we need to make sure that scholarship funding is equitable through the rest of our programs so nobody gets left in the lurch."

The football program was singled out by the task force, in part because it is the driving force behind a potential move to NCAA Division II. The task force recommended evaluating the football program after the 2010 season, with an emphasis on solving scheduling issues and the lack of conference affiliation. The football team has struggled, particularly with scheduling, due to its status as an NAIA independent. Sayre said SOU is one of only four NAIA football programs on the West Coast, and there are only five Division II institutions playing football in the same region.

"Frankly, I was concerned with every year there's something about, 'Is SOU going toward NCAA?'" said Cullinan, "and every year we didn't really have a plan, so it makes sense to say, 'OK, we're looking at a timeline here.' We're hoping in five to seven years we'll be financially stable enough and have enough wherewithal to make that jump. If we don't, we don't make the jump. If we do, then that would be our next step toward excellence."

The football team has enjoyed only two winning seasons since reaching the NAIA Championship quarterfinals in 2001 and '02, although many of those losses have come against NCAA squads.

Rumors have swirled about the possibility of dropping the football program in the wake of the obstacles it has faced, but Sayre said the school's boosters and surrounding community have been adamant that football needed to be maintained at SOU.

"We're much better off with football, we really are," he said. "We're much better off as an institution with football, much better off as an athletic department with football. Because the push for Division II is really all about football and we know that we can't do that right now, we have to pay special attention to helping football right now."

Those words were music to the ears of football coach Steve Helminiak, who was one of a host of Raider coaches on hand for Thursday's press conference.

"I don't think there's any pressure, I really don't," Helminiak said of the football program's status. "I think if you read between the lines with President Cullinan and Matt, I think there's a real commitment into making this happen."

"Football can't keep going the same way we're going, we've got to get some affiliation," he added. "I think that this is gonna really push us in that direction. We're not looking at this as a negative, we're looking at it as a positive."

In the 2008-09 season, nine of SOU's 12 sports advanced to postseason play. Only football, tennis and wrestling hold an independent status, with the other sports competing in the Cascade Conference.

In response to the task force's recommendations, Cullinan will appoint a group composed of representatives from on and off campus to detail the resources and steps needed to move toward possible NCAA membership.

"Athletics are always going to be controversial on a campus," she added of the financial change. "I think that there's good support for athletics overall because our student-athletes are good students. We don't have the problems that many campuses have where faculty see that the students who are on the teams are struggling. Our athletes are excellent students, so that's very helpful."

Among the 317 student-athletes competing for the Raiders in the 2009-10 school year, the overall grade-point average is 2.76 with a 90 percent graduation rate for those completing four years of competition. The student-athlete retention rate is 84 percent.

"There will be controversy," Cullinan said of Thursday's decision. "We're in a situation now where everyone's taking salary cuts and we've had all sorts of cutbacks, but when you don't have a lot of money, that's the time to plan. And so that's what we're doing here, trying to put a plan in place so that as we get more financially stable we're moving in the direction that the university needs to move."

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com