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Words of Wisdom from the Big Sky Commissioner
Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton is completing his 18th year overseeing the Division I league. Commissioner Fullerton recently sat down with Assistant Commissioner for Media Relations Jon Kasper to answer some questions about the future of the league, the current state of the NCAA, the future of FCS football, and other hot-button issues.
The public will have a chance to ask questions of Commissioner Fullerton when he takes over the league’s Twitter account @BigSkyConf on Wednesday, June 12 at 2 p.m. Mountain time.
Q: The Big Sky Conference just completed its 50th year of men’s athletic competition and 25th year of women’s athletic competition. What is your assessment of the Big Sky Conference as it heads into its second half century?
A: We couldn’t be in a better position. There are only three conferences playing football in the West: The Pac 12, the Mountain West, and the Big Sky. The opportunity for us to attract quality young men and women to the Big Sky has never been better. It also has provided us the opportunity in the media industry that we haven’t had before. Finally, we have like-minded institutions who understand the value of playing FCS football. All of this adds up to a feeling of stability in the conference.
Q: The last three years have been turbulent for conferences. The Big Sky added the likes of Southern Utah and North Dakota as full members, and Cal Poly and UC Davis as football affiliate members. Why do you think the Big Sky so far has been able to survive a raid by other conferences?
A: Our presidents have a deep understanding of the industry. They understand the difference between real opportunity and “the illusion of opportunity.” We have discussed the landscape at nearly every meeting we’ve had in recent years. When the opportunity came to move quickly to add affiliate football members and gain stability, the presidents were ready to move.
Q: The Big Sky has long been one of the top Football Championship Conferences. Other marquee programs such as Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are leaving FCS to join the FBS. Do defections like those, and rumors of other programs looking to jump give you concern about the future of FCS?
A: We are indeed concerned. Every indicator tells us that the institutions that make the move to the fourth quadrant of FBS - that is where they will all most certainly move to - are going to win less often and spend more money for that privilege. Yet, they insist that the neighborhood change will somehow make them a better institution. They will fund their programs in very predictable ways. Those institutions are not able to move to a conference that is able to support the move financially, nor are they able to tape into untapped media resource. They will either play more “money games,’’ or they will ask for more allocated income from their students or their president. The money game road has proven, for every school that has tried it, to be a sure method to destroy even the most solid programs. So that leaves them with securing more allocated funding from their universities. It almost always comes down to those options. Given the widening gap separating the five top conferences financially from the rest of FBS, whatever they are chasing is going to only become even more unattainable and more expensive in the future.
Q: The Big Ten has announced plans to no longer schedule FCS teams in the non-conference. These guarantee games against the power conferences are lucrative for Big Sky schools. If other conferences such as the Pac-12 and Big 12 follow the Big Ten, what is the potential impact on Big Sky institutions?
A: We don’t live off the guarantee money; however, it is important to the programs in the Big Sky Conference. In recent years, we have been more and more successful on the field against those FBS programs. It would be a blow to all of FCS if all of the FBS conferences followed the lead of the Big Ten and refused to play FCS institutions. If FCS programs can’t find funding, they are tempted to move to FBS to take advantage of the game guarantees paid at that level. It does seem odd that FBS as a division has had a continuing interest in not allowing institutions to join them, but has basically encouraged programs to join FBS through these kinds of moves. Who knows, this issue may be one eventually solved by the antitrust attorneys.
Q: There has been a lot of speculation about the power conferences pulling away and forming a new level of Division I football. If that were to happen, where do you think the Big Sky would fit if the structures were to change in coming years?
A: One of the basic problems of governance within the NCAA has always been that the subdivisions as defined do not match the natural financial “break points” within the membership. Currently, there are some 20+ institutions making money in a net earned income sense. With the recently negotiated media contracts in the top five conferences soon to take full effect, that number will move to about 60 or 70 institutions. All of those institutions, save for a few independents, will be in those top five conferences. I actually encourage them to look at a new level for football (let’s call it Subdivision IV). It might add some sanity to our membership. They (Subdivision IV) could run an NFL-type schedule with divisional champions and a playoff at the end of the football season. Of course, there would be headaches for that top group as well, as they may very well not look much like an academic enterprise under that model. However, I don’t worry about them leaving the NCAA in all sports, as, the day after they depart, they would have to form a new NCAA. They would have to run some 80+ championships and implement some enforcement mechanisms. I don’t think they want any part of setting those up. Plus the basketball tournament - as well as some others such as baseball, ice hockey, and track and field - would lose much of the cache they have earned over the years, without the participation of the non- Subdivision IV leagues. However, I would argue that a football break has basically already occurred, why not codify it? As I’ve stated before, I believe the Big Sky is in a perfect position to compete at the second-highest level of Division I football, whatever that may be in the future.
Q: Throughout this wave of conference realignment, what has been most disappointing to you?
A: The most disappointing aspect of the last few years is an apparent lack of support of the NCAA brand. The NCAA, a membership organization, has been an incredible organization in support of young people and their pursuit of a college degree. The advancements made in amateur athletics on so many fronts have almost always come from NCAA efforts. Current student-athletes graduate at higher rates than the general student population. What other organization has spent as much time making sure that our secondary students are being properly prepared in the core courses? They provide 89 championships, and generally provide an adequate model of enforcement. There has always been a tension between the promotion of the individual conferences and the promotion of the NCAA in general. But, there have always been those within the membership who understood that without the NCAA, most of the context for athletics is lost. There are very few conferences whose brand value can stand alone, and they represent less than 5% of the total enterprise. Even the media seems to have bought into the conference brand as the ideal in college athletics. I miss those who have understood that the overall enterprise of college athletics must be supported, even at the expense, at times, of conference branding opportunities. I realize that I am talking about my colleagues mostly in the conference offices – including myself - and maybe some presidents, but there have been many cases over recent years where the fervor to maximize conference brand potential (cash) has been at the expense of the NCAA brand and the enterprise itself. We need to work on that.
Q: The FCS playoffs expand to 24 teams this upcoming season. The national championship game will again be played in January. The BCS will have a playoff for the first time. How will the BCS playoff potentially impact the FCS playoffs?
A: I have always been a proponent of starting our football season in FCS one week earlier and ending before the holidays. As we move into January, the average fan has “bowl fatigue.” I love football, but can’t stand to watch the bowl games the second week in January. Now that the playoff group will be moving games to post January 1, they will take all of the “oxygen” out of that space. I think ESPN would rather we played the weekend before Christmas, and I agree. This is an issue that FCS needs to address.
Q: The NCAA has been under a lot of fire in the past 18 months for a myriad of reasons. In your opinion, how does the NCAA fix its current problems, such as the rule book, amateurism, enforcement, and regain the trust of the public, media and its membership?
A: I remain bullish on the NCAA. It’s easy to take shots at the NCAA. It’s a large, slow-moving organization. However, it is still a viable membership organization. When you criticize the NCAA, you are criticizing the institutions themselves. I think that anytime the problems confronting any organization become complex, there is a temptation to begin to act on what you believe is true rather than redoubling your efforts to keep the decisions data driven. I think we have fallen victim to some of that thinking. Our structure would work if those within the structure put the “right” people in the room and allow for the presidents to lead rather than legislate.
Q: You’ve spent four years on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Committee, expending countless hours pouring over schedules, RPI ratings, schedule strength ratings, quality wins, bad losses, etc. Certainly the Big Sky is not where it needs to be in the Division I men’s basketball world. What are some of the challenges the Big Sky faces in men’s basketball, and how has your work on the committee helped you shape a plan for making our league stronger?
A: My time with the Division I men’s Basketball Committee has been very rewarding. It has indeed given me fresh perspective on how a conference can move basketball forward. The overarching lesson is that everyone in a conference, has to “buy into” the plan. The metrics used to measure success connect all of the programs from top to bottom in a league as well as across the country. Everyone in a conference must understand its role. Second, coaches can’t always solve the issues. The presidents and athletic administrators have to be involved in the decisions of funding and particularly scheduling. This will be a team effort if we are to have any success in moving the Big Sky forward.
By The Big Sky Conference