Here Comes The Sun

Mar 1, 2024
By Michael Savaloja

Alumni News

  • Campus Clips

The following is an excerpt from Alumni & Friends Magazine Winter 2024 issue. Read the full issue here.

Playing conference football games on the road in 1969 was an indelible experience for University of Jamestown Athletic Hall of Fame left tackle Joel Gutensohn ’70.

Gutensohn and the Jimmies would load a hired bus bound for nearby destinations such as Minot and Wahpeton, where UJ orange would both match the falling tree leaves and clash with familiar North Dakota College Athletic Conference (NDCAC) rivals.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – a coach Rollie Greeno staple – was usually Jamestown’s victory-sustaining fuel during the school’s 38th of 69 enduring years as a member of the NDCAC.

“Everyone in the conference was so close, you either knew kids on the other team and developed friendships, or, serious rivalries,” Gutensohn recalled. “Two years ago, some place north of Watertown (S.D.), we caught up to the Jamestown bus driving somewhere, and I mentioned it was a bit farther than we traveled.”

Try nearly halfway to the Dallas-Fort Worth metro, if UJ happened to be bound for Great Plains Athletic Conference (GPAC) opponents Doane University or Hastings College in southeast Nebraska.

This past November, University of Jamestown announced it had accepted an invitation to join the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) and will have filed for NCAA Division II membership by the Feb. 1 application deadline.

Following six years as a member of the Iowa-based GPAC – the last chapter in a string of three conference homes and a one-year independent stint since the NDCAC vanished in 2000 – the Jimmies will be leaving the NAIA and, in a real sense, are returning home.

“I’m very, very, very – those three words – excited that we’ll get a chance to have the opportunity to see some teams within the area,” said Bismarck resident Paul Kranz ’64, a UJ Athletics Hall of Famer and senior captain of the final E.J. Cassell-led Jimmie men’s basketball team. “They’ll have their work cut out for them, but it’s still good to see them close to home.”

Headquartered in Burnsville, Minnesota, the 16-team NSIC with UJ boasts former NDCAC or Dakota Athletic Conference (DAC) members Minot State University, University of Mary in Bismarck, and University of Minnesota Crookston.

One hundred miles south of Jamestown lies NSIC member Northern State University, a familiar opponent from the old neighboring South Dakota College Athletic Conference days. To the east is Minnesota State University Moorhead, which, along with Jamestown, was a member of the Interstate College Conference prior to 1931.

Joel and his wife, Linda (Gall) Gutensohn ’71, residing in Bismarck, rarely miss UJ home football games in Jamestown. They haven’t, however, witnessed a UJ conference game on the road in years, and that’s finally about to change as UJ will be rolling multiple sports teams into its largest alumni bases outside of Jamestown – Fargo-Moorhead, Bismarck, and Minneapolis-St. Paul – multiple times per year beginning in 2025-26.

Maybe the only drawback? Linda, a retired U-Mary assistant professor, could subconsciously clap hands for the Marauders.

“It’s going to be a little tough,” Linda laughed. “I can have half and half!”

“No,” Joel quipped. “She can’t.”


UJ had been earmarked for NCAA Division II athletics in the past.

It wasn’t as if the Jimmies missed the bus in 2006 when U-Mary left the DAC in favor of the NSIC, or again in 2012 when the league expanded to 16 teams and scooped up Minot State.

In the 2000s, UJ was an institution that had triumphed over economic instability of prior two decades and was still busy keeping the horse in front of the cart. Even as the local college athletics landscape was beginning to splinter over NAIA vs. NCAA – taking a wrecking ball to historic rivalries and no-brain scheduling – a crucial point of order for small, successful private universities with sound leadership took precedence.

Academics had to come first.

“At the time that U-Mary made the move, we were invited to do the same, but it wasn’t the right time for us,” explained University of Jamestown President Dr. Polly Peterson. “Even though a large percentage of our students come to us with the wish to participate in athletics after high school, we prioritized the academic needs of the University because of our commitment to academic excellence.”

Major on-campus investments began with the opening of the 47,000-square-foot Reiland Fine Arts Center in 2001. In 2006, the $4.5 million Unruh and Sheldon Center for Business and Computer Science opened its doors.

A facelift for Kinesiology and Physical Education followed with the unveiling of the 12,500-square-foot Foss Wellness Center in 2008.

The investments kept coming.

In 2013, UJ wrapped up a $9-million renovation and expansion of Orlady Hall with the opening of the McKenna Thielsch Center, which houses science-laden laboratories for Nursing, Biology and Chemistry, and in 2021 the Schuler Engineering Lab was added on to Sorkness Center.

“When I started in institutional advancement 17 years ago, we doubted whether we could raise $3 million to do a renovation and an addition, and we’ve raised $110 million to support academics and scholarship first,” Dr. Peterson said. “Most recently, we have been able to raise the funds necessary to support the Harold Newman Arena, the Charlotte and Gordon Hansen Stadium, the Nelson Family Bubble and the renovation of the Larson Center into a great indoor track and athletic practice facility.”

Five master’s programs, a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, and a PHD in Clinical Research have come with all the brick and mortar, and UJ graduate assistants are provided on-campus opportunities in the way of coaching and professional development, while at the same time supporting UJ’s ability to operate and succeed at the D-II level.

This January, UJ had 17 graduate assistants working with 12 athletic programs and UJ’s athletic media relations department. Conversely, the last time the NSIC had an opening, Jimmie athletics still had coaches heading up one program while acting as assistant coaches for others.

“That’s what happens as we seek excellence. It means investment,” Dr. Peterson said. “It means positioning yourself in such a way that you can provide the best possible experience for students academically, athletically and artistically. Those things are part of an institution who believes in its future.”

UJ’s leaders didn’t just hope to possibly fit in with NCAA Division II someday. They realized it would more than likely become a necessary opportunity, and pushed to the point where failure would seem inconceivable.

The NSIC took notice.

“The University of Jamestown has strategically developed into a comprehensive institution, including the development of excellent programs and facilities,” said Dr. Tim Downs, President of Minnesota State University Moorhead and Chair of the NSIC Board of Directors. “Concurrently, they have dedicated resources toward the development of competitive athletic programs; for this reason, we feel confident that the University of Jamestown will be a very good addition to the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.”


The NAIA, for various reasons, has fallen from 588 members in 1974 to 241 in 2023-24.

When UJ exits the NAIA for D-II in 2025-26, only six NAIA schools are set to remain in all the Dakotas: Valley City State, Dickinson State and Mayville State in North Dakota, and Mount Marty, Dakota Wesleyan and Dakota State in South Dakota.

That’s approximately one NAIA institution per every 24,646 square miles.

Minnesota, which is second only to North Dakota in UJ’s student-athlete recruiting efforts, has zero NAIA colleges or universities. Not a single one.

“So, when you are recruiting in Minnesota – athlete or not – you start with having to explain the NAIA,” Dr. Peterson said.

Data recently sought out by UJ revealed that 40% of Minnesota families had never heard of University of Jamestown. Contributing to that statistic is the literal absence of Jimmie athletics buses driving through and stopping in Minnesota’s college towns on game days.

What Minnesota families are aware of, however, is the NSIC with members in St. Paul (Concordia St. Paul, enrollment 5,861), Duluth (University of Minnesota Duluth, 9,350), Mankato (Minnesota State University Mankato, 14,635), Marshall (Southwest Minnesota State University, 2,531), St. Cloud (St. Cloud State University, 10,063), Winona (Winona State University, 6,072) and Moorhead (MSUM, 4,379).

The news of the league extending its invite to UJ in November has been viewed a whopping 418,000 times on the NSIC’s X (formerly, Twitter) page alone, and counting.

“When you ask whether brand and awareness of UJ will be impacted by this move, look at the statistics of the announcement,” Dr. Peterson said. “I was astonished. Half a million people saw that UJ was joining the NSIC within the first few days. That’s brand awareness.”

The NCAA has approximately 1,100 members, with 293 of those members being D-II and split almost evenly between public and private schools.

The NCAA’s world-wide name recognition, connection to bigger schools and larger budgets, obviously plays a massive role in public interest, as well as media coverage, even at the D-II level.

“KFYR (television) and the Bismarck Tribune don’t pay any attention to the University of Jamestown, but now they’ll have to,” Joel Gutensohn pointed out.

UJ’s final season in the NAIA will begin next fall as part of the North Star Athletic Association’s (NSAA) last hurrah. The area conference is set to disband in the spring of 2025, as only Valley City State, Dickinson State, Mayville State, Dakota State and Bellevue (Neb.) will remain.

The NSAA was hit particularly hard following 2022-23 with the closing of both Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D., and affiliate member Iowa Wesleyan.

Former NSAA members Viterbo University (Wisc.) and Waldorf University (Iowa) have found new NAIA homes for 2024-25, with the V-Hawks moving east to the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Warriors essentially replacing UJ in the GPAC.

It’s been reported that in 2025-26 Dickinson State is once again planning to move to the Montana-based Frontier Conference, a league that probably wouldn’t mind Valley City and Mayville coming that way as well, even though more than 600 miles separates Mayville from just Billings, Mont., and the Frontier includes an affiliate football member in Glendale, Ariz.

UJ was a charter member of the NSAA when it was created in 2013 in response to the collapse of the DAC. The fall of the DAC was aided by Black Hills State (S.D.) and South Dakota Mines transitioning to NCAA Division II and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.

“We can’t control what the other institutions are doing. We can control what we are doing,” Dr. Peterson said. “I am proud of the priorities in the way in which we got here, and that’s why it has taken us this long to get to this point. We have been strategic in getting prepared in the right way and I’m proud of that.”

UJ will be eligible to compete for national championships during its NAIA swan song in 2024-25.

“Next year we’ll compete in the North Star, and we’ll be completely postseason eligible in every sport,” said UJ Athletic Director Austin Hieb. “Next year will count as year one of our three-year NCAA Division II provisional period, and, as it sits now, we’ll compete in the NSIC for the remaining two years without being eligible to compete in the NCAA postseason.”

As a member of the NSIC beginning in 2025-26, UJ will be able to compete in the conference postseason for men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track, men’s and women’s golf, and women’s swimming.

UJ is exploring avenues in which it could provide additional postseason competition prior to achieving NCAA Division II active member status in 2027. Once such avenue is potential opportunities within the National Christian College Athletic Association.


Nobody’s arguably more amped up for this coming July than Hieb, the man charged with facilitating UJ’s move to D-II.

This summer is when UJ should receive the green light from the NCAA to move forward with its three-year transition to D-II. While it’s not a formality, UJ is confident it has attractively positioned itself.

UJ is replacing Upper Iowa, which after 17 years in the NSIC has jumped ship to the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Jimmies are also replacing eight, one-way trips of over 400 miles in the GPAC with just two in the NSIC (Winona State and Wayne State College).

“I’m really excited for the University,” Hieb said. “I think more than anything, this will kind of get us back to our roots. We’ve got a great fan base, and we really do lack visiting crowds now with teams coming from six hours away.”

UJ leaders said from the beginning they’d continue to assess the University’s 2018 move to the GPAC based on stipulations that would never come to fruition.

The GPAC’s unwillingness to entertain moving conference games from a Wednesday/Saturday schedule to Friday/Saturday, as well as little cooperation in the way of establishing north and south divisions, contributed to the type of missed class time that could no longer be considered a UJ-worthy student experience.

Even with Wi-Fi wired buses, video recorded classes and Zoom meetings, the travel became a burden to faculty as well as the student-athletes.

“Students were getting the content but not the experience,” Dr. Peterson said. “I learned from faculty that they were doing weekend makeup activities, and that’s a special place when you have faculty that would come in on a weekend and do that for our students.”

The NSIC operates basketball and football via north and south divisions, and plays conference games on Fridays and Saturdays, unless teams in proximity can determine one or two more convenient dates.

“Not only are NSIC schools closer geographically, but the scheduling model is also significantly more conducive to us being in class, and the faculty I’ve talked to are really excited about that,” Hieb said.

The Jimmies are slated to become official members of the NSIC on July 1, 2025, pending said NCAA approval. UJ will be the NSIC’s fifth private institution, joining Mary, the University of Sioux Falls, Augustana University (S.D.) and Concordia-St. Paul.

Hieb, a former associate athletic director at Northern State, is extremely familiar with the NSIC and explained UJ already looks a lot like a D-II school.

“We have two full-time strength coaches with two graduate assistants, six athletic trainers, a full-time athletic director, a full-time sports information director, and our facilities are now second to none,” Hieb detailed. “Those are a few of the things some NAIA schools don’t have that UJ has strategically invested in over the past decade in preparation for this move.”

Notable staff changes that have also already occurred is the hiring of a full-time NCAA compliance officer who has no coaching responsibilities, as well as the designation of a senior women sports administrator.

Compliance and reporting will be a major point of emphasis, as the NCAA, for example, limits coach contact with recruits and requires specific amounts of weekly in-season and out-of-season practice times.

“The recruiting rules are probably the biggest piece of the whole thing,” Hieb said. “The forms for the official visits vs. the unofficial visits. The dead periods, the age at which you can talk to student athletes. Those will be nuances that our coaches will have to get used to. It’s the reporting of those things that’s really the big difference.”

Scholarships will still be based off equivalencies but won’t be tethered to the GPAC’s rule of capping scholarships at full tuition. UJ will be able to offer student-athletes full rides that include room and board, but those types of scenarios, depending on budgets and a team’s number of scholarship equivalents, would more than likely be a combination of both athletic and academic scholarships.

Academic scholarships do not count toward a team’s equivalency. For example, football allows 36 scholarship equivalents, or full grants, which can be divided up between any number of players. Basketball is allowed 10, baseball nine, women’s volleyball eight, etc.

“Not being able to scholarship past full tuition in the GPAC was really handcuffing schools, in my opinion,” Hieb said. “At the national tournaments, other schools were playing by different sets of rules, especially after the NAIA went to one division in basketball.”

UJ’s endowment has grown to more than $45 million presently, allowing UJ the initial path forward to providing comparable D-II athletic and academic opportunities to fellow NSIC institutions.

“Under the NCAA model, you can recruit and be able to provide the student with full cost of attendance, but we have to manage that carefully,” Dr Peterson said. “Somebody who is both athletically and academically talented is what that would take at UJ.”

And, unlike the NAIA, all postseason expenses at the D-II level are covered by the NCAA.

“We’ve had successful programs, so we spend a significant amount of resources on postseason travel, but that isn’t why you go Division II,” Dr. Peterson said. “You go because you want to compete in the best conference, in a region that makes sense, in a way that supports the mission of your university, the academic integrity of your university and the athletic integrity of your university.”


UJ head football coach Brian Mistro ‘09 has been familiar with the NCAA’s extensive regulations dating all the way back to his playing days, and he’s coached within a similar framework since day one.

Mistro began contacting recruits through a customer relationship management (CRM) tool as a graduate assistant at Northern State University more than a decade ago and he’s never looked back. That’s probably something all UJ coaches are going to have to become accustomed with to keep their compliance officer happy.

“I haven’t used my Outlook to send an email to a football player in 12 years,” Mistro said.

Mistro has basically always been operating within NCAA rules.

He did so first as a Jimmie under former head coach Tom Dosch, and again while serving as an assistant coach at NCAA D-III Concordia College in Moorhead. Dosch brought to UJ most of the same coaching structure he had honed as an assistant at University of North Dakota.

Mistro’s teams don’t practice over 20 hours per week in season, nor do they work out more than eight hours a week in the summer, which are both D-II requirements.

“I’m not worried, because I feel like we kind of do it all anyway,” Mistro said. “We’re prepared because of the way we run our program.”

Mistro said he has approached recruiting differently, but not necessarily because of the rules. Different types of athletes expect to compete at the highest level of the NSIC, and those types of athletes will obviously consume scholarship dollars, or scholarship equivalency, which could possibly impact roster size.

With that being said, coach Mistro noted that interest in playing football for the Jimmies has increased since UJ’s D-II plans became public.

“Our recruiting class is already ahead of where it’s been in years past because we have guys interested in NCAA Division II,” Mistro said.

UJ women’s soccer coach Nick Becker also knows what to expect in the coming months, as a former gradate assistant at Northern State. He’ll be looking at dialing back off-season training hours, which will be capped at eight.

“We’re well over that now, so I think we’ll have to be a little bit more creative on how we can fit under those eight hours,” Becker said.

Jimmie women’s soccer usually squares off against NCAA D-I and D-II opponents in the spring and preseason, giving them a heads up on the road ahead.

“I think the level is much closer for us because of the competition over years,” Becker said. “We’ve spent the last 10 years trying to recruit that level, and when I lose kids, I’m losing them to D-I or D-II schools, not other NAIA schools. So, the (NCAA) blue dot helps us.”

The NSIC, however, doesn’t field men’s soccer, men’s volleyball or women’s wrestling, but Hieb said UJ is working on solutions.

“Women’s wrestling can continue to wrestle at opens and compete at the NCAA national championship. Some NSIC teams might eventually crop up,” Hieb said. “We’re looking at affiliated memberships for men’s soccer and men’s volleyball. I feel we’ll be able to find pretty good solutions for both.”

Since joining the GPAC, UJ athletic teams have won nine conference championships and a national championship in volleyball, the school’s first national team championship.

Similar success will take time in the NSIC, but UJ leaders are confident the Jimmies will get there. Teams from the NSIC have claimed 25 national championships since the league’s inception in 1992.

“Student experience is A-1 for me, but what adds to a good student experience is winning games. That’s a pretty fun experience,” Hieb said. “We know there will be some challenges and growing pains, but this is where we think we belong and it’s not about what’s best for us a year from now, or two years from now. It’s about what’s best for our long-term future.”

And UJ’s long-term future will again include plenty of alumni at road games, familiar teams for the local media cover, and bus rides fit for a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“We will be playing schools that were in our conference at one time or were on our non-conference schedules for decades,” Dr. Peterson said. “If those universities had never left to go to the NCAA, they would be the universities we would still be playing today.

“It definitely feels like we’re back home.”


This article was originally printed  Alumni & Friends Magazine Winter 2024 issue. Read the full issue here.

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