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Stevenson Rising

January 16, 2017
Often in higher education, athletics and academics make for awkward bedfellows. Instances of academic fraud -- staff members completing class work for athletes or players being steered to phony courses for easy grades -- have made headlines, embarrassed universities and drawn censure from the NCAA.

However, when vision, hard work and fortuitous circumstances align, athletics and academics can enjoy a positive, synergistic relationship. Such has been the case at Baltimore County's Stevenson University, where the 16-year tenure of recently retired president Kevin Manning has seen the institution evolve exponentially from what had formerly been Villa Julie College.

Since Manning's arrival in 2000, enrollment has grown from about 1,500 to more than 4,200; the university budget increased from $25 million to about $155 million, and numerous intercollegiate sports were added, including football.

Classroom offerings at Stevenson University have grown to seven schools offering majors that span the academic spectrum from nursing, business and criminal justice to theater, film and fashion design.

At the same time, the Stevenson Mustangs athletic program has earned an impressive collection of championship banners and trophies in a variety of sports, highlighted by the men's lacrosse team winning the NCAA Division III national championship in 2013.

"This has been a great run, and it was the result of great teamwork," said Tim Campbell, the university's senior vice president for finances.

Referring to Manning's arrival when the seeds were planted for the university's future trajectory, Campbell said, "What we realized quickly was even though Villa Julie was a special place, it was small and fragile."

At the beginning of the new century, Villa Julie was still essentially a commuter college. If students required housing, arrangements were made at long-stay hotels or in an area apartment building.

In Manning's view, maintaining the status quo was far from ideal. His plan from the beginning was to move the college forward on several tracks by improving student life with more dormitory housing, expanding academic offerings and pumping up athletics.

Issue 229: Stevenson University: 2014 Footballl
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

"I knew from having been in the industry for many years that the market for higher education was going to become much more challenging and that a larger institution was going to be much more competitive," said Manning, 72, who retired at the end of November. "Plus, we could provide more quality services -- academic and otherwise -- for our faculty, our staff and our students, because size is such a big factor. And you couldn't do what we did in athletics without being a bigger institution."

Eventually, athletics would provide the momentum to grow the college that was originally situated in a cozy setting, now referred to as the Greenspring Campus, on Greenspring Valley Road just north of I-695. But first, room for expansion needed to be created by adding housing that could accommodate a larger student body.

In 2003, the college bought 15 acres in Owings Mills, Md., about six miles west of the original campus, earmarked for student housing. The land was adjacent to the old Baltimore Ravens practice facility and not long after, the college also purchased that property from Baltimore City, which included practice fields and an administration building that would become the nerve center for the athletic program's growth.

The former Ravens facility even included some old furniture. Longtime Stevenson athletic director Brett Adams still uses the desk that belonged to Ravens founding owner Art Modell.

"I knew that if we were going to build an athletic program that we were not going to be able to do it recruiting just within an hour of our school. We were going to have to recruit from out of the area," Adams said. "That meant that we were going to need housing, so that had to become the first priority. But if we were going to commit to building dorm space, the athletic department had to be able to fill those dorms, and we felt that we could absolutely do that. We felt we were going to have no problem filling those beds, and we were excited about the chance to do it."

Early Days

Villa Julie College was founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1947. The school was primarily for women and focused on what could be called white-collar vocational training in the medical-secretarial field. Seven years later, it was able to offer two-year college degrees.

In 1967, Villa Julie became an independent institution, ending its association with the Catholic Church and coming under the guidance and control of a secular board of trustees, mainly businessmen and professionals.

The remainder of the 20th century saw Villa Julie expand its academic offerings; become co-educational by admitting men in 1972; construct academic and campus life buildings, and in 1984, become a four-year college.

In 1994, Villa Julie was accepted into the NCAA in Division III, a designation that would be significant in shaping the university's future.

Manning arrived in 2000 as the institution's fourth president after holding key jobs at Washington University in St. Louis, Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and Immaculata College (now Immaculata University) in suburban Philadelphia.

Manning also came with ambitious but carefully plotted plans for Villa Julie's march into the new century.

First came the dorms on the newly acquired Owings Mills campus and almost simultaneously, the acquisition of the Ravens facility that would become the site of a stadium for a football program still years away.

However, none of it would have come together if the administration team couldn't find other leaders who shared Manning's vision for what Stevenson could become and make prospective students, including athletes, see it as well.

"Kevin Manning, Brett Adams and Tim Campbell all wanted people who were willing to roll up their sleeves and sell the dream," said Kathy Railey, the school's associate athletic director and head women's lacrosse coach. "It took a special kind of person to see it and then recruit the students that you needed to keep the dream afloat."

When Adams first showed up at then-Villa Julie in 1994, the school had between 70 and 80 students playing NCAA sports. Now, it has more than 700 students playing NCAA sports and another couple hundred playing club and intramural sports.

In the 1990s, students traveled to games in vans driven by part-time assistant coaches, and Adams said the entire athletic department budget was $57,000.

"Today, we spend $55,000 just on preseason meals for our fall sports," Adams said. "The students travel to games in chartered buses, and when the distance dictates it, we travel by plane."

Division III Is Key

Stevenson University offers 27 NCAA-level sports from football to women's beach volleyball. The roster of sports also includes men's and women's basketball, lacrosse, soccer, indoor and outdoor track and field, cross country, golf, tennis, ice hockey, swimming, regular volleyball, baseball (men), softball (women) and field hockey (women).

The reason Stevenson can be so expansive in its athletic offerings is that as a Division III school, it and its competitors are not permitted to give out athletic scholarships. This allows Stevenson to avoid the financial arms race that drags down so many Division I and Division II athletic programs.

Issue 229: Stevenson University: 2015 Women's Volleyball
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox

"Staying Division III was very important," Manning said. "Over the years, I had had a lot of experience with various athletic programs. I had gone to Ohio State myself (where he earned his doctorate), and worked at Washington University in St. Louis, which is a top Division III program, and I knew that Division III was going to be our sweet spot. We were never tempted to do anything else."

Being a Division III school dramatically alters the athletic financial model. Larger schools hand out millions of dollars in scholarship money that, on the ledger sheet, is an enormous expense in running a sports program.

At the Division III level, a student-athlete may be eligible for the same financial aid package as any other student. Stevenson administrators estimate an athlete entering Stevenson represents about a $20,000-a-year net gain to the university.

The type of student-athletes who attend Stevenson are those who enjoy playing sports, were pretty good in high school and want to continue in college, but they realize an athletic scholarship probably isn't in the cards. Even if they make it as a walk-on at a bigger school, they'd have little chance of getting much playing time.

Stevenson has become a desirable alternative for Division III-level student-athletes by providing superior athletic facilities and an academic program that boasts placing more than 90 percent of its graduates into jobs or graduate programs within six months of getting their diploma.

"Our motto is that we are a Division III school that provides a Division I experience," Railey said. "You're still going to be doing film study every day. You'll still have study halls. You'll be putting in the time both physically and mentally.

"And while we don't have scholarships, our athletes know that their gear is going to be as good as their buddies' who may go to Maryland. They'll travel in style. They'll have full-time head coaches and, in some cases, full-time assistant coaches, which is unheard of in Division III."

While Manning and his team had been working on evolving Stevenson's campus, academic offerings and athletic programs for several years, a pivotal moment came in 2008 when the university's board of trustees voted to rename Villa Julie College as Stevenson University.

The move had practical, psychological and marketing implications that announced the institution with dual campuses in Baltimore's northern suburbs had transitioned from being a commuter college to a regional university.

Next came the twin decisions to start a football team and build a football stadium.

Issue 229: Stevenson University: Mustang Stadium
Photo Credit: Sabina Moran/PressBox
"We were fortunate in that when we acquired the old facilities in Owings Mills, we had the makings of a football stadium, so we weren't starting entirely from scratch," current board of trustees chairman Jim Stradtner said. "But if you were going to have a football stadium, you better have a football team."

Would It Work?

The looming question was could Stevenson recruit enough students-athletes to field a reasonably competitive football team without offering scholarships?

Athletic officials hoped to attract about 80 prospective football players for the initial season in 2010, which was basically a developmental year (the team started play in 2011). Instead, 125 student-athletes were recruited to become part of the first Mustangs football team.

"When we saw the large number of applicants that wanted to play football, I was amazed," Stradtner said.

Immediately, it became obvious Manning's business model for sports was going to work. If the university created sports programs within the context of a university that promised a rewarding academic experience and post-graduation success in the workplace, families with the requisite financial resources would send their children there and athletes would embrace being part of an NCAA atmosphere.

In 2011, the university opened the 3,500-seat Mustang Stadium. A year earlier, the Owings Mills Gymnasium opened. Combined, the two buildings cost about $20 million.

The startup of the football program and attendant marching band meant an enrollment jump of about 250 students, Manning said. Arguably, those are 250 students that otherwise might not have attended Stevenson. The tuition those students represent pays the annual debt load of the two sports buildings, Manning said.

The marching band is an example of how athletics can create spinoff activities that give the university a three-dimensional feel. Manning figured a football Saturday should be an event and a marching band was integral to the experience. The university solicited the advice of John Ziemann, leader of the legendary Baltimore Colts' Marching Band that became the Marching Ravens. Ziemann recommended Mark Lortz, who was then at Westminster High School, as band director.

"When I first put together the estimated cost for what a marching band would cost, there was a little bit of sticker shock," Lortz said.

But Lortz also had calculations to show the investment would be worth it. The appeal of a marching band for prospective students mirrored what happened with football recruiting.

"We projected we'd get about 35 students that first year and we got 72," Lortz said. "Then it jumped to 100, and it's peaking at about 125 to 130."

Now, fall Saturdays at Stevenson crackle with the autumnal tradition of football on campus.

In front of Mustang Stadium, there's a statue of a rearing stallion that's a favorite photo op setting for visiting parents. The marching band provides a soundtrack for tailgating. And so far, the results on the field have generally given Stevenson fans plenty to cheer about.

A member of the Middle Atlantic Conference, Stevenson's football program under head coach Ed Hottle steadily climbed the conference standings. In 2016, the Mustangs finished first in the MAC with an 8-1 league record and advanced to the NCAA Division III playoffs before losing to Wesley Nov. 19. They were ranked No. 20 nationally in the top 25 poll.

"When Manning made that move to build that stadium and hire a football coach, that's when they started to get attention and get more ink. He showed that he understood what makes the clock tick in terms of college fundraising," said Bob Leffler, who ran a longtime Baltimore advertising and marketing agency that specialized in sports. Leffler has worked with schools in just about every major college conference and designed Stevenson's signature "S."

"You have to give Manning credit," Leffler said. "When I attend NCAA conferences, the complaint that I hear from the athletics people is that the college presidents have taken over [the athletics programs] and too often they don't know what they're doing. And Manning knew what he was doing -- too bad he's not younger."

Manning announced last spring he intended to retire in 2017, and some minor but pressing health concerns accelerated his timetable. 

"I think it needs a fresh set of eyes," Manning said. "I'm being realistic; you can't do this forever."

With his retirement Nov. 29, there is the natural reaction of wonder about the university's future.

Most immediately, Stevenson's arc toward expansion is likely to continue as the school moves closer to finalizing a deal with the state to acquire a significant parcel of land just east of and largely contiguous to the Owings Mills Campus that was part of the Rosewood Center, a long-abandoned facility that once housed those with mental disabilities. The university has been negotiating to acquire 128 acres -- some of which may require environmental remediation -- and would be put to use for more sports facilities as well as, eventually, academic purposes.

Then, of course, is the matter of replacing Manning. Claire Moore, the university's vice president of student affairs, has been serving as interim president.

"I prefer to select someone who is committed to carrying on the vision of moving ahead and continuing to improve Stevenson in both athletic and academic areas," Stradtner said.

A decision on a new president could come in March.

Like many retirees, Manning plans to spend more time with family while still maintaining some involvement with his lifelong vocation pondering higher education and perhaps consulting.

"It was an exciting and significant journey for me and, I think, for everyone who was at Stevenson," Manning said. "And you have to recognize the team -- in athletics, the faculty and the staff. It was really an honor for me to not only serve Stevenson and the university but also the Maryland community." 

Issue 229: January 2017