Perhaps the biggest proponent of taking a small private university in South Dakota into the realm of big-time college athletics is a longtime hospital administrator who thinks as big as his 6-foot-6 frame.
Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft, who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and schmoozed with billionaires T. Denny Sanford, the hospital namesake, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, would be a key player in helping Augustana University find the money to move from Division II to Division I athletics. Now he's calling publicly for the Sioux Falls school to take another look at moving from Division II to Division I.
University President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin declined to be interviewed about such a move, but issued a statement saying it's "time to revisit the Division I topic."
Krabbenhoft believes the decision is more about academics than athletics. He called sports "just the front porch" to expanding research departments and professional schools that would attract students, including some who could become doctors and nurses for his organization.
"The dynamic question is: What does Augie want to become? Not in terms of history or reputation, but size," Krabbenhoft said. "Do they want to become kind of a Notre Dame-ish organization, or a Creighton? As a private school in this arena, those are kind of the icons or the trailblazers they should try to emulate. And then it's possible."
The Lutheran-affiliated school with about 2,000 students recently hired Herseth Sandlin, as well new athletic director Josh Morton, both of whom have experience on a big stage.
Herseth Sandlin is a former Democratic U.S. congresswoman in a Republican-dominated state. Morton helped the University of North Dakota in its jump to Division I, then was assistant athletic director at Michigan State.
Herseth Sandlin's statement said revisiting a move on athletics is appropriate as part of a larger discussion on Augustana's long-term goals. Morton, who also declined to be interviewed, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader that going Division I was not a significant topic when he interviewed for the job.
Krabbenhoft co-chaired a committee that in 2005 explored whether Augustana should jump to Division I. The Vikings decided to stay put in large part because they thought they could be more successful in Division II. They won a national basketball title in 2016 and national baseball title this year.
In the meantime, former longtime Interstate 29 rivals South Dakota State, North Dakota State, South Dakota and North Dakota all moved up to Division I, which in most cases has brought in millions of dollars for athletic programs and helped attract students from a wider area. Enrollment has gone up more than 20 percent at South Dakota State and North Dakota State since those schools made plans to go Division I.
NDSU President Dean Bresciani said it also has brought the school a national audience.
"The football program becomes the trigger to looking at the athletics program, which becomes the trigger to looking at the academic program, which becomes the trigger to looking at North Dakota very differently," Bresciani said.
The results have been impressive on the fields and courts. NDSU has won six national football titles. SDSU has made the men's basketball tournament three straight years. Last year, NDSU, South Dakota and SDSU finished 1-2-3 for the Summit League's Commissioner's Cup, for the school that has the most combined points in relationship to placement in league-sponsored men's and women's sports.
Proponents of Augustana moving up to Division I point out that Sioux Falls has also been growing. It's approaching 200,000 people, about a 30 percent increase since the school first looked at moving up. It's projected to be the size of Des Moines, Iowa, by 2025. Business is booming. The city has a new basketball arena, and Augustana has a new football stadium, practice facilities and weight rooms, among other amenities.
"I think it's time for them to be a D-I," said Nate White, a onetime captain of the Augustana basketball team and Sanford executive vice president who runs the Fargo hospital. "I think the thought of renewing old rivalries with the North Dakota and South Dakota schools excites the heck out of alumni."
White said some boosters are skeptical whether the money is there for more scholarships, more coaches at higher salaries, staff and travel. Augustana's athletic budget is about $10 million, compared with more than $20 million for SDSU, NDSU and UND.
Krabbenhoft isn't fazed by the prospect.
"You're talking to a guy who found a way to raise $400 million and then nearly $1 billion. And that's just one guy," Krabbenhoft said. "I'm not just naïvely optimistic. I believe we live in a region and a community up and down I-29 that wants to see these universities succeed — and not just because they are driven by things that bounce and sweat."