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Bryant making strides in transition

Smithfield, RI (Sports Network) - Alternating between drizzle and down-pouring rain, the Bryant Bulldogs were preparing for their second game of the season earlier this month against Hofstra.

Though the Bulldogs fell short the following afternoon, losing 40-24, their journey in becoming a competitive Football Championship Subdivision program has started off on the right foot.

Bryant University, in its second year of a five-year transition period between NCAA Division II and Division I athletics, is 2-1 overall this season, with wins over South Connecticut and Robert Morris.

What makes the Bulldogs' transition unique compared to other school that have made the transition is the age of the Bryant football program.

The Bulldogs fielded their first varsity football team in 1999, and although they finished 5-4 in their inaugural season, they struggled on the field until Marty Fine was brought in from Iowa State to become their head coach in 2004.

In his time as coach, Fine - a veteran mentor with head coaching experience at Sonoma State and the U.S. Naval Academy Prep school, has led the Bulldogs to a 36-19 record. Fine has also served stints as a college assistant at Indiana, Colgate, Westchester Community College and his alma mater, Western New Mexico.

With Fine at the helm, Bryant has played especially well at Bulldog Stadium, where they have won 19 of their last 22 home games. The local community has been extremely supportive of the Bulldogs, which has helped make the transition to Division I athletics smoother than others before them.

"We received great support prior to our move to Division I," Fine said, "We couldn't do it without the support of the local community."

One of the main factors of the move was to build awareness of the school outward from Rhode Island to a more national level.

With several large colleges and universities in the region, Bryant officials knew they had to make a move to compete for enrollment, and the allure of a Division I athletics program was one that brought a measure of excitement to the campus.

Bryant's move to Division I has allowed them to face competition across the country and bring awareness of Bryant to other markets that may not know about this academically-oriented private university.

"Playing schools that are out of market helps us greatly increase Bryant's exposure," athletic director Bill Smith explained, "It's extremely valuable for the university when you watch a college football game and see Bryant scroll across the bottom of the television screen. We have a special place here and we want people to know about it."

In addition to building enrollment outside of New England, becoming a Division I program has generated a buzz on campus with the current student population of 3,268 students.

"Our students were pretty excited about the move," sports information director Jason Sullivan said, "Many of our student athletes we recruited at the Division II level played with, or against, student athletes that attend the most competitive Division I schools."

One of the first challenges Bryant faced was finding a conference home. Many of Bryant's FCS neighbors reside in the Colonial Athletic Association, which currently houses six of the top 15 teams in the country. Bryant opted to join the Northeast Conference, which was a great match in Fine's opinion.

"We felt that our school fit in well with other schools in the NEC in terms of geography, size, and most importantly, academically," Fine explained. "In the five years I've been a part of this program, we have graduated every senior."

Another important part of Bryant's transition to the FCS level is recognizing the importance of patience.

Fine pointed out that many of the athletes they now recruit have a broader range of skill sets, compared to when they were a Division II program. At this stage of the transition, Fine has made it a priority to make sure that in addition to winning, his players are learning off the field as well.

"Academics and character come before their abilities on the field," Fine said. "They understand the value of their education and that football was a vehicle to the education they are receiving."

Thus far, Bryant has taken small steps towards establishing themselves in Division I athletics. In their first season competing at the FCS level, the Bulldogs went 7-4, including a 5-4 record against FCS opponents.

Starting in 2010, when the FCS playoffs expand, the NEC will have an automatic playoff bid.

A multi-million dollar improvement of the Bryant football facilities were completed prior to the beginning of this season and the athletic department are looking at further upgrades to enhance Bulldog Stadium.

If Bryant continues to be successful under Fine's tutelage, they should be in the NEC Championship mix once they are eligible for postseason play in 2012.

09/30 16:24:44 ET