UNF student-athletes began competing in intercollegiate athletics in 1983 at the NAIA level, later moving to Division II and finally, in the 2005-06 season, moved to Division I — the highest level of college athletics.
Yet, change is not without challenges. As mandated by NCAA rules at the time UNF began transitioning, teams could compete for regular season championships, but were not eligible for postseason play for four seasons. The 2019-20 season, then, marks two significant milestones: UNF is now playing in its 15th season at the DI level; and last year marked the end of a decade of competing for postseason championships.
Whichever milestone you choose to celebrate, it’s been an era of success, marked with many memorable moments.
In the early years
It was just a shell of a basketball arena when teenager Nancy Miller stepped inside. There was no electricity, no flooring. Hardly the stuff of an athlete’s dreams. Yet the person conducting Miller’s 1992 tour was then president Adam W. Herbert, who handed her a hard hat, donned one himself and said, “You’re going to play here.”
Miller said she was sold, right then and there. “You know, that’s pretty impressive to a 17-year-old kid that the president of the University would give me a tour,” she said. Miller became a member of the inaugural UNF women’s basketball team — a standout player who set records on the court and was inducted in 2009 into the UNF Athletics Hall of Fame. After her playing career, she later moved into the role of assistant coach of the women’s basketball team.
Miller now works as UNF’s assistant athletic director for compliance in the UNF Arena she once toured, though the hard hat is long gone. Over the years, she has seen first-hand what impact DI has had on the sports program. “As a former coach, the ability to call a prospective student-athlete and say, ‘We’re Division I,’ opens a lot of doors to recruits and high school coaches,” she said. “It really makes a difference.” As a result, Miller said the University has been able to attract excellent student-athletes who are high-achievers in the classroom and on the field or court of play.
Looking back, Miller sees a sustained period of growth. Looking ahead, she sees the same. “I believe the future is bright for UNF athletics and for the University,” Miller said. “UNF has grown so much and the Athletic Department has certainly kept pace. It’s been fun to watch the development of both.”
Men’s golf swings into DI first
For men’s golf, Division I began in 1997, well ahead of most of UNF’s sports. The team was permitted to be fast tracked to DI, along with women’s swimming, which allowed for immediate postseason competition. Scott Schroeder, who began as a student-athlete in 1994, was playing golf at UNF during the transition. He would later work as assistant coach and then as head coach in January 2006. He’s now entering his 13th coaching season.
For Schroeder, the move to DI felt a lot like the first day he stepped onto campus as a college freshman. “You’re so excited because it’s a new level, but at the same time you don’t know what you’re getting in to,” he said. “There were so many unknowns, and you wonder, ‘Do we have the resources to be competitive at this level?’”
What Schroeder discovered was that the move to DI brought a new group of athletes willing to consider UNF. “As a DI Athletics Department, many of our programs are now able to play against the universities that everyone knows,” he said. “When it happened, many of us talked about athletics being the front porch of a university, because most people only hear about a university when they see their sports teams competing.”
The golf team has often been on that porch: making 11 NCAA Regional appearances; advancing to five NCAA Championships; winning six ASUN Championships; and achieving Champion or runner-up status at ASUN in 10 of 14 seasons. This past season, the team’s outstanding performance led them to be ranked No. 19 in the nation.
Among all those accomplishments, one of the most important moments for Schroeder was the first year the team made the NCAA finals in the 2009-10 season. As a coach, it helped him realize just how successful the team could be. It also prompted the team’s motto: Why not us?
“That’s when I realized if I’m willing to put in the work, identify the right kids to build a program, then why not us?” he said. “We’re as good here as anywhere else. These first years were just the start to something that’s going to be better and better for years to come.”
2008-09: A softball season to prove yourself
Four years is a long time to wait to be eligible for postseason competition. Marcie Higgs started coaching the softball team in 2008-09 with one season left in the transition period. Though it was challenging, she was impressed with the attitude of the players.
“UNF was a powerful Division II, and many of the kids had a lot of pride and wanted to prove to the DI teams just how good UNF was,” Higgs said. “I love everything about that mentality. Many of those players had a lot of success transitioning to DI, and I think they surprised a lot of people.”
Higgs understands that pride. She played collegiate ball at DII powerhouse Bloomington University in Pennsylvania, earning All-America honors, all-conference selection four times as an infielder and holding sixth place on the school’s all-time home run list.
She brings that pride of competition to coaching and is now entering her 12th season. For her, two seasons stand out. The first was 2013-14, when the team won the regular season with 42 wins, setting a record for DI play, and earned 18 ASUN wins, the highest of a single season. Also memorable was the recent 2018-19 season. Though the team came up just short in the final game, Higgs was impressed with her athletes. “We got hot when we needed to, and the players just had their backs against the wall and refused to lose this year,” Higgs said.
Certainly, every DI win builds UNF’s name recognition, yet the higher level of competition also has its hurdles. “It’s one thing to play a team that’s perceived to be on a comparable level,” Higgs said. “It’s another situation to go into these huge stadiums and play teams you’ve only seen on TV. It takes some getting used to.” Yet Higgs urges her team to focus less on the opponent and more on playing their own game. And she recruits students who love the competition, which allows them to be competitive no matter where they play.
As a result, Higgs sees no reason why UNF’s athletic programs won’t make it to the national scene in the next era. “I think the possibilities are endless here,” she said.
2011-12: Women’s golf creates history
Head coach Joanne Berglund faced a challenge when she arrived in 2011. With a short recruiting window and no past successes to boast about, she was tasked with building the first women’s golf team.
Undaunted, she relied on a bit of creativity. “I told student-athletes, ‘You can create history,’” Berglund said. “’The first team score that we post is a school record. Do you want to be a part of building history here?’” It proved to be a winning approach. And because there was no existing women’s golf program, the University was able to start as a DI team with no NCAA waiting period.
With several strong players, that first team made an immediate impact and set the foundation for the future. In the years that followed, the team moved from 7th in the conference, to 4th to 2nd and then to first, winning the conference championship in the fourth season.
That fourth-season win was Berglund’s goal. In fact, when she interviewed for the job, she told athletic director Lee Moon that she would win him a conference championship in four years. “That’s what I told him, and in my mind, I was saying, ‘OK, what are you doing?’” said Berglund, laughing. “But I just knew over time, we can do this. I felt with the resources the University had made available, if I could recruit the right players with commitment and drive, then I knew that it could be possible.”
The team’s success has continued and extended to academic honors, as well. “It’s finding success on the golf course, in the classroom and in life,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about. We want them to be ready to take on life when they graduate.”
2014-15: A men’s basketball season to remember
During UNF’s first decade of Division I postseason competition, one moment clearly stands out from the rest — the night the men’s basketball team won the ASUN championship. ESPN was filming as the record-size crowd at the Arena swarmed the floor, and the team earned its first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Head coach Matthew Driscoll remembers it all as though it happened yesterday. He recalled the long line of students waiting to see the game, the flurry of interviews and the final moments of the win. The team had clearly made it to the next level and would bring significant exposure not only to the school, but to all the sports teams.
“It just shows the power of what winning can do for your athletic department and the University as a whole,” Driscoll said. “Men’s basketball has a different aura about it than most sports because March Madness puts it on a national stage,” Driscoll said.
Yet getting on that stage took many seasons of preparation. The team had transitioned to DI and fought through difficult guarantee games with powerhouse schools, often losing by 40 or 50 points. “It was extremely difficult, but the team leaders did a really good job of making sure the guys understood,” Driscoll said. “Not only did we have to set a culture, we had to embrace it.”
Eventually, Driscoll and his coaching staff saw the team making great strides. He credits Beau Beech, a great talent who predicted during recruiting that he would lead the team to a championship win, and Demarcus “Baebae” Daniels, an outstanding defensive player, for getting the team over the hump. Dallas Moore then joined the team and became the catalyst, Driscoll said. Moore would eventually become the all-time leading scorer in DI history in Florida.
As the 2014-15 season continued, Driscoll said he could see there was something special about the team. “It was just awesome to see how the guys would come together and figure it out in a game,” he said. “You could just see this team had something about them.”
There’s no doubt that the 2014-15 winning season elevated the school and its athletics to a new level. These days, however, Driscoll is more focused on the future. He understands and embraces the responsibility he faces as the head men’s basketball coach. “It has nothing to do with me, it would be the same for anyone sitting in this seat,” he said. “This job comes with a tremendous responsibility to the University, because the more we’re successful the greater the University is viewed by the world. It’s just the nature of this sport. So, the question then is, ‘How do we continue to take our University to the next level?’”
At the helm of UNF’s Division I athletics
When Lee Moon was hired in 2009, UNF’s Division I athletics was four years old and about to take its first step into postseason competition. His challenge was to take that young, transitioning program and turn it into a highly competitive DI Athletic Department.
A decade later, under Moon’s leadership, North Florida has claimed 44 conference championships and is now one of the top programs in the ASUN conference. Ospreys have advanced to the NCAA postseason in seven sports including basketball, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf, men’s soccer and track and field.
In addition, Moon added two new varsity sports — women’s golf and beach volleyball — and spearheaded funding for the four-sided video display scoreboard in the arena as well as other upgrades to Osprey home venues. Moon also has created a culture of academic excellence that can boast 16 semesters of a 3.0 cumulative department GPA.
Behind the many decisions and actions that generated this high level of success is an athletic director who is focused on the student-athletes. As a former football player turned coach, Moon went on to gain experience in several executive-level administrative roles before being hired at UNF. Yet, he will tell you that his vision for the program is most influenced by his years of coaching. “The foundation of everything we do is the student-athlete experience,” Moon said. “I want to win, no doubt about it, but not at the expense of everything else.”
He also has been deliberate when selecting coaches. Since coming on board, Moon has retained only two coaches from those early years. And unlike some schools that use outside firms to hire coaches, Moon wants to be the one making those choices. He will tell you he has a talent to be able to read people, to tell what kind of character someone has. “It’s all about the quality of human being that I want to represent the University, the athletic program and me,” Moon said. “We carry that down to the kids we recruit too, so we get kids with high character and high goal standards.”
He wouldn’t have it any other way. Not only does he know his coaches, but he also takes the time to meet the students. “I take great pride in knowing all my athletes, every sport,” Moon said. “I know everybody’s grades, so I know who’s doing well.” It’s part of a family atmosphere that he has worked to create. But don’t expect Moon to only hand out praise; he also will call an athlete to his office for a tough discussion, if needed.
It’s all part of a typical day in the life of a college athletic director, a role with many moving targets: fundraising, budgeting, hiring, firing, ensuring NCAA compliance, maintaining facilities, building a supportive fan base and much more.
Yet, whatever the challenges, the very best part of the job for Moon is watching the athletes compete and mature from 18-year-old teenagers to young adults who learn to cope with successes, failures, injuries or whatever life throws at them. “I tell them all, our responsibility is that they have a successful academic experience, a successful athletic experience and a successful social experience,” Moon said. “We work to accomplish all three things before they walk out of here.”