Oklahoma Baptist Brings Swimming Back to Sooner State

On the first day of the Chesapeake Pro-Am in Oklahoma City, the state got some good news on the swimming front.  Oklahoma Baptist University will be adding swimming, along with football and lacrosse.  The private NAIA school will become the first university in the state of Oklahoma to offer swimming since the Oklahoma Sooners were members of the now-defunct Big 8 conference.  The move is at least the fourth new program announced for the 2011-12 season and a boost in a swimming-starved part of the country.

"Today, after many months of study, I am pleased to announce that Oklahoma Baptist University is resuming a varsity football program," said OBU President Dr. David Whitlock. "We are taking steps to build the program effective immediately, and our team will play a full season of competition in the fall of 2013. Football is one of four varsity sports teams being added to our overall athletics program. OBU also will field new teams in men's and women's swimming, and in women's lacrosse."

The Shawnee university will add men's and women's swimming, football and women's lacrosse incrementally, beginning with swimming in 2011-12. Football is tentatively set to begin in the fall semester of 2013 and lacrosse is set to begin in 2012.

OBU will be making its first venture into swimming and lacrosse, while football will be played on campus for the first time since 1940.

The additions will give OBU 21 sports - 10 men's and 11 women's teams.

"OBU currently fields 17 varsity sports teams," Dr. Whitlock said. "Athletics play a great role on our campus. They add to our sense of community, provide a rallying point for students and alumni, and offer a point of connection for the local community. Our history of athletic success has contributed to the overall success of our mission in Christian higher education. We are confident that these new teams will contribute to that story of success."

OBU began studying the possibility of adding football in 2006-07, but opted to postpone the move. More study began in 2010 and included startup and annual cost, impact on academics, housing and other campus concerns.

"We looked at some sister institutions to see what we could learn from them," said OBU Athletic Director Norris Russell. "Several small Christian colleges have added football in the last 10 years and it has been a sport that brings in a large number of male students and has a very positive impact on student life."

It is estimated that the sports will add more than 170 student-athletes to the campus and generate more than $750,000 in net revenue.

OBU is a member of the Sooner Athletic Conference and the NAIA and while there are no plans to change those affiliations, the SAC does not participate in any of those sports.

Swimming is similar to track and field and no conference affiliation is necessary. Swimmers qualify for the NAIA meet by meeting time standards. OBU would be the only varsity college swim team in Oklahoma. There are 24 NAIA schools offering swimming with two in Missouri and none in Texas, Kansas, Arkansas or Colorado.

There are more than 29,000 high school swimmers in the six-state region.

"We would be the only varsity collegiate program in Oklahoma and we could be a trend-setter in that regard," Dr. Russell said. "People we've talked to about swimming have encouraged us. There are a lot of good swimmers in Oklahoma who have to leave the state to continue their careers."

Lacrosse is a little more challenging. The NAIA does not compete in lacrosse. Currently, women's lacrosse is played at 10 NAIA schools. OBU would play a hybrid schedule of varsity and club teams.

"It's novel, but from what we've learned in talking to people, it's doable," Russell said. "It would be a hybrid sport. We look at colleges like Lindenwood as an example of how to make that work."

Lindenwood, located in St. Charles, Mo., competes in the Women's Collegiate Lacrosse League, which includes more than 100 club teams. Lindenwood is in a division with Illinois, Wisconsin, Marquette and Northwestern.

Lacrosse has been identified as a growing sport in Oklahoma and in the region. Nationally, more than 60,000 girls play high school lacrosse, with many more involved in club teams.

"We found that lacrosse is one of the fastest growing female sports," Russell said. "A lot of young ladies, especially in metropolitan areas, such as Kansas City, St. Louis and Dallas, are playing lacrosse. It's also very popular at private high schools."

OBU last added a sport in 2008, with the addition of volleyball.  The Lady Bison volleyball team won the Sooner Athletic Conference regular season title this year.

Oklahoma Baptist is coming off of one of its best seasons ever in the NAIA, winning the men's national championship in basketball, as well as the women's indoor track and field national title.