Stetson University, a Florida institution that will bring back football in 2013. (Courtesy of Stetson University)

Nebraska’s Cornhuskers are reveling in the university’s inclusion in the Big Ten this fall. Texas A&M’s Aggies are prepping for a move to the Southeastern Conference in 2012.

And the Stetson University Hatters? No conference realignments for us, but we are immersing ourselves in Tailgating 101, psyching up our students and alumni for the resurrection of Stetson’s Division I football program in 2013.

That might seem trivial in comparison with big conference ball, but it’s an important step for a small institution such as Stetson. Although economic difficulties are forcing some universities to cut back on or eliminate athletics and extracurricular programs, Stetson is taking the opposite tack: adding – or, in the case of football, reviving – intercollegiate sports and club teams.

It’s important enough that last weekend, I was out there along with our alumni association in Annapolis at the Navy-Southern Mississippi football game. It’s important for us to learn the art of the pregame ritual because in two years we’ll be perfecting it next to our home field in DeLand, Fla. I want the worldwide Stetson community to follow our Hatters at home games in DeLand and across the country at the stadiums of universities of the prestigious non-scholarship Pioneer Football League.

And, to be blunt, we want our new slate of intercollegiate sports (football, women’s lacrosse and sand volleyball) and club sports (including skydiving, surfing, lacrosse, equestrian and shooting sports) to make Stetson visible and attractive to prospective students outside Florida.

College sports are controversial by their very nature, with critics charging that in tight economic times, sports detract from a university’s core mission. The reality is that during tough economic times, having a variety of sports programs is increasingly important as a tool for marketing a university outside its back yard. And a college athletics program with integrity and character allows students to build both leadership and teamwork skills.

Stetson has been deliberate in keeping its eye on the academic mission, as well, so, of course, enhanced athletics offerings haven’t been the only piece of the strategic puzzle. We won’t compromise academic integrity in pursuit of a winning team, nor will we dilute our pursuit of quality students who are a good fit for Stetson. Among the strategies that helped us reach a record entering enrollment this fall (849 incoming and transfer students, as opposed to 670 in 2010) are national recognition of our excellent and rigorous academics; personalized education with outstanding faculty; classroom and technological improvements; landscaping upgrades and “curb appeal” emphasis; and a new four-day program for incoming students to transition them from high school to their first and then second years in college. We’ve also implemented “Hatter Quest,” a new approach to entering student orientation that has all students start their first-year seminar courses during orientation week and finish the class before Thanksgiving.

So many of our initiatives are crucial for academic success, recruitment and retention. Intercollegiate sports, thanks to the scope of the Pioneer Football League, help by giving Stetson name recognition outside our comfort zone in central Florida – from Upstate New York to Indiana, Iowa and Southern California. Even club sports create excitement and bonding among students, as well as creating a palpable, vibrant atmosphere.

Athletics, rather than being a distraction from our core mission, are integrated into a holistic campus experience and actually help us to educate the whole student.