HANCOCK, Mich. — Finlandia University took the initial step in establishing a football program by hiring Tim Driscoll as its first coach in April. The second step for the Lions is to gain access into a Division III conference that can house not only football but all 14 of their sports teams.
The school may have found that home in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference, a league headquartered in Saint Paul, Minnesota, a short drive from Hancock.
Driscoll confirmed with Daily Peninsula on Tuesday that Finlandia has initiated contact with the conference about gaining full-time membership. He is confident the conference will grant the school membership beginning in the 2016 school year.
“We feel very confident about gaining that affiliation,” Driscoll said. “Our Vice President of the university and athletic director (Chris Salani) have been in direct contact in looking into conference affiliation for the fall of 2016.”
The UMAC has seven full members from Minnesota and one from Wisconsin — Northland College — while three schools from Illinois and one each from Iowa and Missouri take part in the league as associate members for football only.
Finlandia is Michigan’s only D3 school in the Upper Peninsula and joining the UMAC over the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — a D3 league that houses seven Lower Peninsula schools — makes more sense for the university both financially and logistically.
“A lot of the schools (in the conference) are private schools and really match the profile of our school,” Driscoll said of the UMAC. “The schools in Ashland, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota are actually a lot closer as far as travel goes than the Michigan schools.”
Finlandia’s football program begins play in 2015. The Lions will play their inaugural season as an independent and have already contracted non-conference games against four D3 programs.
So far the school has scheduled the following games:
– Sept. 5 vs. Alma College,
– Sept. 12 at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh,
– Sept. 19 at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and
– Sept. 26 vs. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Driscoll informed Daily Peninsula that when he isn’t recruiting, he intends to spend the rest of the 2014 summer scheduling the final six games for Finlandia’s 2015 slate.
At first blush, its inaugural schedule looks tough. Whitewater won the D3 National Championship in 2013, while Oshkosh finished as the No. 11 team in the country last season, according to D3Football.com.
Alma could blossom into a natural rival with Finlandia, because the Scots are located closest to the Upper Peninsula, in comparison with the other MIAA teams.
Driscoll said talks with Alma have already started in regards to scheduling future games past 2015.
However, at this point, he cannot officially schedule any games beyond 2015 because he is unaware of what Finlandia’s conference schedule will look like assuming it joins the UMAC.
“I would love to continue scheduling schools,” he said. “We just don’t have or know when our open dates are starting in 2016. Once this conference thing gets sorted out, there’s been conversation with Alma about continuing to play.”
The benefits of playing Alma — or any of the MIAA teams — outweigh not scheduling games in the Lower Peninsula. Finlandia plans to land around 70 recruits in 2014 and expects several of those prospects to hail from below the bridge. Playing non-conference games against, say, Hope College could be a homecoming for a player originally from West Michigan.
“I think it’d be a great thing to show ourselves in lower Michigan to help our recruiting,” Driscoll said. “We will have some young men on our team from the lower peninsula starting this fall.”