The Michigan athletic department officially announced that the men's and women's club lacrosse teams will be upgraded to varsity status in the coming years, confirming a move that has been rumored for months. As previously reported, the men's team will move to Division I next season, whereas the women's team will not make the move until the 2012-13 academic year.
The men's team, which is the first to upgrade to varsity status since Notre Dame added the sport back in 1981, will apply to join the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC). Already in the ECAC are Ohio State, Denver, Loyola (MD), Fairfield, Air Force, Hobart and Bellarmine.
Along with Ohio State and Penn State, there will now be three Big Ten schools to sponsor varsity lacrosse, and Michigan plans on playing the other two next season. The Buckeyes will be an in-conference rival, and Mike Rothstein reports that Penn State will be on the non-conference schedule (as will Notre Dame).
The women's lacrosse team will apply to join the American Lacrosse Conference (ALC) when it makes the upgrade to varsity status. The ALC currently has six teams: Florida, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Penn State, Ohio State and Vanderbilt.
Michigan hopes to build a dedicated lacrosse venue in the future to house the men's and women's teams. In the meantime, the lacrosse teams will play games all over the Michigan athletic campus -- at the soccer complex, Oosterbaan Fieldhouse (old football practice facility and current home venue for lacrosse), the fields near Schembechler Hall and even Michigan Stadium.
Michigan Stadium may seem a bit big for lacrosse, but athletic director Dave Brandon threw out the idea of playing a game on the same day as the spring football game to attract more fans. Ohio State actually did that this year. OSU hosted a lacrosse game at Ohio Stadium before its spring football game began, so that's one possibility to draw people to a game at the Big House, which Brandon hopes would host NCAA tournament games if Michigan ever gets that opportunity.
Worrying about hosting NCAA tournament games is a ways down the road. For now Michigan is focusing on hiring coaches to lead its two new varsity programs. Brandon said he has a "primary candidate in mind" for the men's job, undoubtedly referring to John Paul, who has coached the club team for 14 seasons. Paul helped build Michigan lacrosse into the most dominant club team in the nation, winning national championships from 2008-10 and a conference title in 11 of the previous 13 seasons. He is a good bet to become the varsity head coach, whereas the search is on for somebody to lead the women's team.
The total cost to run the two new varsity sports will be $3 million a year, according to Brandon. Brandon admitted that only time will tell if lacrosse can become a revenue-generating sport, but he also said that the athletic department has "identified lacrosse as the fastest growing sport in America."
It will take Michigan three years for the two new programs to be fully funded and get a dedicated facility, and it will also probably take some time before the lacrosse teams are able to compete for national championships. Even so, this is very exciting news for the Michigan athletic department, which now boasts 29 total varsity sports.
(Make sure to follow Tim Sullivan and Mike Rothstein on Twitter for more on Michigan lacrosse's move to varsity status. Also make sure to check out Great Lax State for more on lacrosse in the state of Michigan.)