UNK football coach Darrell Morris wasn't chasing a recruit or lining up a nonconference opponent.
This phone call was much more important.
“I was talking to a gentleman, a person from a banking institution, who has some interest in helping us with some fundraising efforts,” Morris said.
Raising money has become an even bigger part of the job for Morris and the other coaches at the University of Nebraska at Kearney since the Lopers began playing in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association last year.
Golf tournaments, camps, banquets and backyard barbecues are pumping essential funds into an athletic department that receives less university support than most MIAA rivals.
The conference average for athletic aid from the institution is $1,463,626 compared with $1,019,566 at UNK, according to Loper athletic department figures.
Welcome to the MIAA, coaches, and make sure you have your hand out at all times.
“There's not a day that goes by I'm not talking to someone about giving me money,” Morris said.
Outgoing Athletic Director Jon McBride said UNK believed it knew what it was getting into when it decided in the summer of 2010 to leave the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference for the 14-team MIAA. It meant less travel, better competition, more comparable schools and a renewal of some rivalries from the 1980s.
As reality has set in, it's proven more difficult than anticipated.
“I think we thought we understood — until you experience firsthand the numbers and the budgets that are in place,” McBride said.
It's not just in scholarship money that UNK trails — it's in areas such as travel budgets, staffing and facilities.
The Lopers got an eye-opener during their first trip through the MIAA.
Missouri Western's indoor sports facility, home to the Kansas City Chiefs' training camp, set what MIAA Commissioner Bob Boerigter called the gold standard for conference schools. The highlight of the Missouri Western facility is a 100-yard indoor turf practice field. Fort Hays State is finishing a new indoor facility, and Pittsburg State has one on the drawing board.
Still, with recent renovations to its football stadium and a nearly 6,000-seat arena for basketball and volleyball, UNK has game venues that are competitive.
“Kearney does really very well with facilities as related to the rest of the MIAA,” Boerigter said. “Their challenge is funding for scholarships and getting players.”
Traditionally, UNK has competed in leagues whose members did not fund the maximum of number of scholarships allowed in NCAA Division II. In football, for instance, most MIAA schools fund 36 football scholarships, the maximum allowed. Meanwhile, Morris is thrilled that through hard work over the past four years his total has grown from 14 scholarships to close to 29.
And it's hard to see scholarship money growing without continued fundraising through private sources, said UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen.
He said he doesn't expect any additional funds from the legislature, and with tuition frozen for the next two years, coaches will have to continue their role as fundraisers.
Climbing into the top half of the MIAA in scholarship money “won't happen overnight,” Kristensen said. “I think a five-year time period will be a reasonable time period to measure.
“We are going to get there,” he added. “And when we get there, we will set another goal.”
Overall, Boerigter said, the Lopers did well in their first season in the MIAA. He said the league is excited to have them. UNK is in the MIAA's geographic footprint, he said, and has good facilities and good people.
“Their institution is a lot like our schools in size, academic mission,” he said, “and their commitment to graduating their student-athletes is outstanding, as is most of our schools.”
Boerigter acknowledged the Lopers' struggles. He said he thought the football and men's basketball teams, two high-profile sports that are traditionally competitive at UNK, would have more success out of the gate.
The football team, 10-2 the previous season in the RMAC, struggled to a 3-8 record after injuries forced the Lopers to use six quarterbacks.
Even with a healthy team, winning in the MIAA is a challenge, Morris said.
“We knew the MIAA was the SEC of Division II football,” he said. “Everything I thought it was going to be, it is.”
The men's basketball team, which had finished fourth in the RMAC in 2011-12, went 4-14 in the MIAA and 7-19 overall.
UNK men's co-coach Tom Kropp can offer eight basketball scholarships. Other MIAA teams offer 10. Furthermore, other MIAA schools set their 10 scholarships at out-of-state tuition rates. UNK's funding rate is based on in-state tuition numbers.
UNK tuition by credit hour is $368.75 for an out-of-state player compared with $174.50 in-state. That means, for example, that awarding a full-ride scholarship to an out-of-state player can take a disproportionate bite out of the scholarship pool.
“That was one of the things that stood out during the course of the season,” said McBride, pointing to the number of out-of-state junior college transfers on MIAA rosters.
UNK more than held its own in some sports in the first year through the MIAA. The volleyball team won the league, and the wrestling team claimed a second straight national championship.
Volleyball coach Rick Squiers said his team didn't face as big of a step up in competition as some others at UNK. And because Nebraska is a hotbed for high school volleyball, he has less of a need to look outside the state for competitive players.
Division II volleyball programs are allowed to offer eight scholarships, and Squiers has been able to fund seven to 7˝.
“Even though we were successful in our first year, we still realize it's a fine line,” Squiers said. “I think we're going to have to continue to make progress. We're kind of operating with enough, but I think if we don't think progressively, we will quickly fall behind from what I've seen.”
To that end, Squiers has raised between $25,000 and $40,000 outside of his budget each year, mainly by putting on three or four club volleyball tournaments.
He was thrilled to get an unexpected gift this year of $25,000.
Squiers said he still thinks shifting to the MIAA was the best move for the Loper athletic program as a whole.
“We're still in that phase where everybody is working out the bugs,” Squiers said. “I really do think long-term, especially if we can financially begin to prepare our teams a little bit better, this is the best place for us.”
McBride has been working with the business office on a plan to take UNK in the right direction. That project will be taken over by a new athletic director, whom the school hopes to have in place by this fall.
The UNK staff hopes the incoming A.D. will put fundraising under a more central umbrella. The Kearney community has been good about supporting the school, coaches say, but potential donors are getting hit from many directions. They say the school must look more to the east to Omaha, which has many UNK alumni.
The goal, says McBride, is for endowed scholarships, which would help move coaches out of the fundraising business. “I would rather have (coaches) recruiting and coaching and running their programs,” McBride said.
Coaches don't see an end to their fundraising activities anytime soon. They may not like that role, but they'll do it if it means success in the new conference.
“All we can do,” Squiers said, “is roll up our sleeves, go recruit and compete and adjust as we make our way through the league a few times and hope for the best.”
Despite his team's difficulties on the football field, Morris agrees with Squiers: Joining the MIAA has been the best move for the Lopers.
The higher profile has been a benefit to recruiting. Players across the country recognize the league because of the success of Pittsburg State and Northwest Missouri State, both of which have won recent national championships. It's also helped energize alumni and other potential donors.
“It has elevated the way people perceive our football program,” Morris said. “You get lumped into the pack you run in. There is no better pack.”