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UWF Tries to Outgrow Image

The University of West Florida has long struggled with its place in the 11-institution state university system.

Some viewed the small Pensacola university as a commuter school, or a step beyond a community college. It wasn't the place where top Florida students went for the traditional college experience, the thinking went.

But the university's new president and its board of trustees are developing comprehensive plans to change the atmosphere of the 11,000 student campus by trying to bring in different kinds of students who may have previously ignored the college.

A new dorm is slated to open in 2010. The university has also started offering full tuition scholarships to students who ranked in the top five of their high school class. And, within five years, UWF President Judy Bense wants to have a Division I football team at the university.

“The idea is to try and make this a true campus-based college experience and we want to do that, never forgetting that our roots are with commuters and military people who cannot go to school full time,” said UWF Trustees chair K.C. Clark.

UWF is just one of several Florida universities that have worked to build up its profile over the past two decades. University of South Florida , which opened its doors in 1960, launched a football program in 1997 and enjoyed a rather meteoric rise, joining the Big East in 2005 and earning its first bowl bid that year as well.

Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton also launched a football team in the past decade. The university had nabbed former University of Miami coach Howard Schnellenberger to build the program and in 2001, the Owls played their first game. FAU joined the NCAA’s Division I in 2006.

And now, UWF is trying emulate those success stories, trying to make itself bigger and friendlier to more traditional students by looking at programs like football, plus adding more scholarships and residence halls.

“These things needed to be done for 20 long years,” Bense said.

Clark said there have been a few who are hesitant about starting up a football program, but he said for the most part, the trustees have been open to looking at the possibilities and what it could do for the school.

“There are two very distinct camps, those who think we can't live without football and those who think we will die with football,” he said.

Clark acknowledged that Bense's timeline for hitting Division I in five years is probably ambitious, but he said he would like to see a task force formed in the near future to lay out how much money the institution will need to build a program up and the other logistics.

For now, university officials are focusing on the smaller things, like building up the student body with high quality students, and looking at economically viable ways to build more residence halls in a bad economy.

“All of that takes money and what we have to do is learn to be more creative about sources,” Clark said. “We can't rely on the state anymore.”

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