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Conference shake-up could bolster UND's chances of finding a home
The conference movement that is shaking NCAA Division I athletics like a massive earthquake this week has the Big Sky Conference on alert. On Thursday, the University of North Dakota and Southern Utah were both on the league’s radar.
To what extent is not certain, but Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said UND could be an option if the University of Montana, the most likely candidate to move its football program up a level, leaves. The popular theory has the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision Western Athletic Conference making a push for Football Championship Subdivision schools like Montana.
“I think that would be a logical move for the WAC,” Fullerton said. “Luckily, with the Big Sky, there are options. … I think the Big Sky could reconstitute almost overnight.”
Southern Utah of The Summit League, which includes North Dakota State, would perhaps be the best option. So would Utah Valley University of the Great West Conference, although UVU would probably have to add football.
Southern Utah has for years tried to get into the Big Sky for two reasons: location and the Big Sky provides a better home for its football program. The Summit does not offer football and Southern Utah is a football-only member of the Great West.
Summit commissioner Thomas Douple was out of the office Thursday and unavailable for comment.
UND athletic director Brian Faison also could not be reached for comment.
As for UND, the familiar problem of geography may still be tough to conquer. All nine Big Sky schools are either in the Mountain or Pacific time zones while UND would be the first from the Central time zone.
“I still think there are people uncomfortable with a horizontally developed league,” Fullerton said. “It seems like leagues develop vertically and I think that has to do with time zones and market news cycles. I’m not sure, but I think that’s why.”
Fullerton reiterated the stir created by bringing North Dakota State and South Dakota State to the Big Sky expansion table in 2003. The league accepted only Northern Colorado citing the geographical footprint as a main reason.
“We got killed by geography,” Fullerton said. “That may hinder some of our choices and that’s just me saying that.”
If indeed The Summit would lose Southern Utah, the conference’s automatic-qualifier status for national competition would not be jeopardized. All that is needed, under a new NCAA rule, is six active Division I schools – seven in basketball.
Even with Centenary College leaving for NCAA Division III after next season, The Summit would still have nine schools. The University of South Dakota has been admitted to The Summit starting in 2011.
By Jeff Kolpack