The landscape of college athletics is changing. Dramatically. The creation of superconferences and multibillion-dollar television deals has some schools scrambling to find a new home and to figure out how they fit into an ever-shifting scenario.
Many of these changes are driven by institutions with football programs, and, for better or worse, it’s affecting other programs. For example, the University of Oklahoma’s decision to move to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) will have striking ramifications for the University of Denver’s women’s gymnastics team. Currently, DU competes in the Big 12 for gymnastics, and the departure of Oklahoma, which won the 2022 national title, means their spot will now be taken by Brigham Young University from the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference.
Josh Berlo, DU’s new vice chancellor for athletics, is watching this seismic shift in college athletics very closely.
“These changes impact us on varying levels,” he says. “We need to be paying close attention to what’s transpiring there and make sure that we are affiliated with the conferences that empower our programs to chase national-level success.”
Berlo comes to DU after serving nearly 10 years as the athletic director at the University of Minnesota Duluth, known for its powerhouse hockey squad. However, it’s his 13-year prior experience at the University of Notre Dame that best prepared him for the shake-up in college athletics. As a big football school whose legendary team has independent status and been an Atlantic Coast Conference affiliate, Notre Dame is constantly seeking to position its programs and student-athletes for optimum advantage.
“We are in the right place right now, but we have to pay close attention to how those conferences are evolving,” Berlo says. “We’ve got 18 incredible programs that are well-positioned for short-term and long-term success. But we can’t be naive to think that’s enough and to not be really engaged in those conversations.”
Since taking over for Karlton Creech this past summer, Berlo has made his No. 1 priority getting to know DU’s student-athletes, coaches and staff. He also says understanding the culture is important when taking over at a new program.
“It’s incumbent upon me to really know what it means to be a DU student-athlete and the culture that they are a part of,” he says. “So, as I begin to make decisions, I’m doing them in a way that is fully informed as to the student-athlete culture here.”
One way he plans to support student-athletes is by emphasizing the fan experience at home games. Berlo made this a priority during his time at UMD, especially as their programs became more successful. The goal is to create an atmosphere across all DU programs that fans have been accustomed to experiencing while cheering for hockey, gymnastics and lacrosse. Berlo hopes to engage with students and make sure their voices are heard in shaping the future of what it’s like to attend DU sporting events.
“Student-athletes love playing in front of an energetic, packed crowd,” Berlo says. “It will be a priority regardless of what the prevailing opinion [is] of what we have had, and it needs to be a priority in the current content-overloaded world we live in.”
Berlo also knows that, as important as success on the field is, the athletes are students first. The combination of elite-level academics and competitive achievement attracted him to this position and reminded him of the values that characterized his time at Notre Dame.
Last year, Pioneer student-athletes earned a combined 3.57 grade point average. Both the men’s and women’s soccer teams were recognized for having the top GPAs in the country in their respective sports. As a program, 258 DU student-athletes earned academic honors from their respective conferences.
“Sometimes you do have to recruit a little harder to find student-athletes that fit this institution. I really do believe that when you are excelling in all disciplines, you can fully reach your potential—and I think one often feeds the other,” Berlo says. “When you win with integrity and academic excellence, that’s a pretty powerful thing.”
Photo by Wayne Armstrong