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On high plains, a team without a conference
These are tough times for North Dakota and it doesn’t have anything to do with the team’s performance on the football field.
The university recently had its 80-year-old nickname, the Fighting Sioux, stripped by the NCAA amid concerns that it was offensive to American Indians. And now the former Division II national champion, which is moving to Division I athletics and won’t be eligible for the playoffs until 2012, has learned that the five-team Great West Conference is on the verge of collapse.
The league’s two California teams are bolting for the Big Sky Conference as the realignment shuffle reaches the smaller leagues. That leaves just North Dakota, South Dakota and Southern Utah.
“Obviously with all the changes in the landscape, it has made things interesting,” said Brian Faison, the school’s athletic director. “Football is a concern for us. There’s no way of getting around it.”
Great West commissioner Ed Grom said last week that he couldn’t comment about the future of football in the league until Cal Poly and UC Davis give formal notice of their departure.
But he seemed to talk in past tense.
“This league has done everything that the people who formed this league wanted it to do,” Grom said.
Although the school is known primarily for its hockey team, which is second in the nation with seven Division I national titles, the football program has a proud history. It won the Division II championship in 2001 and has 23 conference titles. The school, 1-2 this season, is four wins away from 600.
North Dakota has applied for membership in the Summit League which does not offer football. Faison said there’s some talk of the Summit adding football in some form, perhaps in conjunction with the Missouri Valley Conference.
The state’s other Division I school, North Dakota State, is firmly entrenched in the Missouri Valley for football and the Summit for other sports. NDSU began its transition from Division II five years ahead of North Dakota.
The exodus of Cal Poly and UC Davis comes at a time when some North Dakota boosters are upset at the retirement of the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname. The school has not decided about a replacement.
Faison said he expects North Dakota to know its football future within the next two months.
“The positive thing is that there is going to be resolution to this before we hit the (recruiting) trail,” coach Chris Mussman said. “I choose to stress the positives because we know what the negatives are.”
Mussman said logos and leagues aren’t an issue in recruiting.
“Our recruiting is based on the facilities, the community and the university,” he said. “That’s an easy sell.”
One possible landing place for the program is the Big Sky, which has expanded from nine to 11 schools and might be receptive to adding a 12th member.
The problem: There are likely other interested parties in the last Big Sky spot, including Great West member Southern Utah. The Thunderbirds would seem to have geography on their side in a league of Western schools.
Ed Lamb, the Southern Utah head football coach, sounded upbeat when asked about the Great West shake-up. He said the Big Sky and Southland Conference are two possibilities.
“We think whatever happens is going to be a plus,” Lamb said.
Catlin Solum, North Dakota’s junior running back, said players are taking news of the Great West subtraction in stride.
“Every team wants to be in a bigger and better conference,” he said. “You kind of figure that it’s going to happen for us eventually. We want to find a conference that fits us best.”
By Dave Kolpack, Associated Press