ASHLAND — Southern Oregon wanted to know how people felt about its athletics department, particularly its football program. Turns out, staff, former coaches, students, media members and just about everybody else with an interest agree: The Raiders need a home, and that home might as well be in the NCAA.

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon wanted to know how people felt about its athletics department, particularly its football program. Turns out, staff, former coaches, students, media members and just about everybody else with an interest agree: The Raiders need a home, and that home might as well be in the NCAA.

Led by interim athletic director Matt Sayre and sports information director Bobby Heiken, an SOU steering committee wrapped up an eight-week study Thursday designed to determine how athletics is perceived both internally and in the community.

The results, according to Sayre, show that a move from NAIA to NCAA would be popular because the football team has struggled with an independent schedule loaded with road games.

"They want to see football with a home," Sayre said, "and there are lots of emotions around football in these focus groups about, 'You've got a football program and that has got to be your calling card, that has got to be your marquee program, and why aren't we in a division or a league.'

"That's kind of what we've (heard) about it, primarily. That was surprising because the perception of SOU is always as a liberal campus, and you would think that a liberal campus and football wouldn't mix. But the campus as a whole in these focus groups and surveys really wants to get behind a successful football program and watch it go."

And most of those surveyed — more than 60 percent, according to Sayre — believe making the move to Division II is part of the solution.

Now, Southern Oregon must determine if it's possible.

"I think what we will recommend ... is that a feasibility committee be appointed on campus to really study the economic feasibility of going D-II," Sayre said. "We have done, I guess you could say, the emotional feasibility and the perception around D-II, but I think the feasibility study still really needs to be done by people not specifically associated with athletics. But we'll recommend that that be done probably next year and hopefully, (apply) by June of 2010 to go to Division II."

The "emotional feasibility" relied heavily on focus groups, face-to-face interviews conducted by Sayre and Heiken. The duo sought to talk to every segment of the local population with a stake in SOU athletics. The groups, ranging in size from three to 15 people each, included: media, general students, student athletes, staff, community members, faculty, ex-coaches, ex-athletes and administrators.

The administrators, including SOU president Mary Cullinan, represented the final focus group. That meeting was Thursday.

"We wanted to really evaluate what people think about athletics now at SOU and if that perception will improve if we go to Division II or not, and we've dredged up some interesting tidbits," Sayre said.

Many of those tidbits zeroed in on the football program, which has played an independent schedule since the Columbia Football Association disbanded following the 1998 season. Now, SOU is one of only three NAIA schools on the West Coast with a football program, which has made scheduling home games difficult.

The Raiders will host three games next season, all before fall classes begin.

Before interviewing students, the football program's impact on school spirit was mostly a mystery, said Heiken. Not anymore.

"We even heard it from the general students who were waiting for football to sort of set the tone for the year," he said. "We asked them about school spirit and the way athletics is valued in the campus community and they were sort of, 'Well, it all depends on football — football sets the tone for the year.'"

If the feasibility committee determines SOU should make a run at Division II, Sayre said the next step will be to map out a three-year plan.

His goal is to finish that plan by Sept. 1 so that SOU can start taking baby steps toward what would be one of the biggest transitions in school history.

"I think from the ground floor, the research we're doing and these studies and surveys that we're doing right now ... it's more than other schools have done in our position as they're looking to go Division II," Heiken said. "When the old Columbia Football Association broke apart in the '90s, a lot of (those schools) just went.

"If we're going to go, we're going to have all our ducks in a row. We're going to be ready to make that jump. We're not going to go just to go."

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 482-3456, ext. 224, or joe.zavala@dailytidings.com