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NSIC does away with scholarship restrictions, but can UMD and rest of the league offer the max?

The Minnesota Duluth football team takes the field for the 42nd Annual Maroons vs. Whites spring football game at Malosky Stadium in Duluth in 2016. Starting in 2018-19, the Bulldogs and the rest of the NSIC will be allowed to offer the NCAA Division II maximum of 36 full scholarships instead of the 28 they can offer now. (FILE - Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The NSIC board of directors voted in late May to follow NCAA Division II limits for athletic scholarships, a move many would say was a long time coming.

Now the goal will be to increase scholarships, something sure to be discussed when athletic directors for the 16-team league have their summer meetings in two weeks in Burnsville, Minn.

"It'll be a hot topic," UMD athletic director Josh Berlo said. "This move presents an opportunity and a challenge."

The biggest sport affected is football, where the current league maximum is 28. That will increase to the Div. II limit of 36 beginning with the 2018-19 school year.

"Our goal was to get to 28," Berlo said. "Now our goal is to get to 36."

UMD began increasing its football scholarship levels when the Bulldogs joined the now defunct North Central Conference in 2004. The NCC allowed the Div. II maximum of 36 scholarships while requiring a minimum of 30.

The NSIC at the time restricted football scholarships to 21 before raising it to 24 and then gradually stepping up to 28. There were also scholarship restrictions for other men's sports.

UMD rejoined the league in 2008 and promptly won its first national football championship that fall while adding another title in 2010, beating fully funded programs along the way.

The leader of those championship teams, former UMD football coach and athletic director Bob Nielson, always said he wanted an equal number of scholarships as the teams he was recruiting against, but times have changed, according to current UMD football coach Curt Wiese.

"This is a progressive move for the future of our conference, and the right move to be competitive on a national level," Wiese said. "Recruiting continues to expand, because of the internet, and because of Hudl and because of Twitter. Everybody is reaching outside of their normal recruiting territories, and we're going to need to raise our scholarship dollars to be able to compete on a national level."

The NSIC is one of the last two Div. II leagues in the country with scholarship restrictions below those of the NCAA.

While UMD has expanded its recruiting scope, adding players from California and Illinois, other schools have as well. The problem is when conferences collide.

Wiese has noticed impacts in recent years from fully funded schools in the neighboring Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association (MIAA) and Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC).

"They continue to expand their territories into Wisconsin and Minnesota, and when that happens, we're competing with conferences we do not have the ability to match financially."

UMD has a long ways to go before reaching 36 football scholarships. The Bulldogs' scholarship level went down with their return to the NSIC and has been at about 22 in recent years.

Berlo said that will change, but it won't happen overnight.

Berlo said the Bulldog Club, UMD's main fundraising arm, has exceeded the million dollar mark in fundraising in each of the last four years after averaging about $400,000. He credited the work of former UMD men's basketball coach Gary Holquist, who was named director of development for UMD athletics in March 2012, for spearheading those efforts.

"So we've seen great progress, and we'll continue to do that," Berlo said. "However, many of those gifts are coming in over time. They're estate gifts and multi-year pledges, so as those pledges come in, we'll start moving the needle on our scholarships. Scholarships are our top fundraising priority, and we look forward to a time when we're able to get our football program to 36, and to seeing all our programs fully funded."

Wiese said the internet has opened up a new world of recruiting options for athletes to find the right fit, and that often involves finances. But other than that, the basics are the still the same. UMD's tradition of football success and good academics, in a scenic town on the shores of the world's greatest lake, helped overcome deficiencies elsewhere.

"I don't think people have changed, but I do think people are better consumers," Wiese said. "Kids and families right now have the ability to further their scope and either look online or have contact with coaches from beyond the two or three hour radius around their hometown. It's important for us to be able to keep up and be progressive as a conference.

"For us, if you're at Duluth and UMD, I don't want to ever walk into a home and not be on a equal playing field."