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Wayne Nelson / Forum Communications Co., Published November 02 2010

College athletics: Sioux moving to Big Sky in 2012

GRAND FORKS – The University of North Dakota’s search for a stable home for its Division I athletic programs came to an end Monday. It was a long journey, but one that was worth the miles and obstacles the school endured.

UND accepted an invitation to join the Big Sky Conference – an expanding league that put Fighting Sioux athletics on the fast track for membership in a matter of weeks. UND will officially join the Big Sky on July 1, 2012, but will begin working immediately with league schools on scheduling, marketing and other conference matters.

The Big Sky also added Southern Utah on Monday and South Dakota is expected to join the league within the next few days.

“We’re hopeful South Dakota will be in a position to make this move as well,” UND athletic director Brian Faison said.

But Monday was all about UND’s new home for athletics as the lobby at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center was full of coaches, athletic department officials, Sioux players and fans.

UND’s acceptance into the Big Sky was perhaps the biggest day athletically for the school since it announced its intention to move all athletic programs to the Division I level in 2007.

“This is the best of all possibilities for the University of North Dakota,” UND President Robert Kelley said in making the announcement. “We will be competing with some of our comparable peers in higher education – schools that look and perform like the University of North Dakota.”

Since UND moved its athletic program to the Division I level in 2007, the school has sought membership in a stable conference. The search, at times, seemed to be going nowhere.

In October, however, the Big Sky came into the picture.

The league presidents met on Oct. 20 and UND received an official invitation from the Big Sky last Friday, two days before the school was to entertain an official visit from the Summit League regarding potential membership.

UND canceled the visit from the Summit and quickly accepted the Big Sky invitation.

The swiftness by which the Big Sky acted and the vision the league has for the future impressed UND. Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said the league presidents have a vision about athletics in the West and it includes expansion.

“This isn’t a business where timidity and taking your time is necessarily a good thing,” Faison said. “The Big Sky has an incredible business model and there will clearly be financial benefits for our program.”

Media exposure for Sioux athletics also will increase as the league has markets in Denver, Salt Lake City, Utah, Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif.

But the bottom line at the Big Sky announcement was the relief a stable league will provide UND athletics.

Football, in particular, will benefit from Big Sky membership. Finding a home for Sioux football was one of the major challenges in UND’s move to Division I.

“This is a great day for Fighting Sioux football,” UND coach Chris Mussman said. “The Big Sky has long been a power football league. We are going to be able to bring in teams here that people can identify with. We can start to build some consistent rivalries and we can bring some quality football teams back into the Alerus.”

Joining the Big Sky also should be a major boost to Sioux recruiting, especially in football-rich California.

But coaches from other sports were excited about the move as well.

“This is probably, for me, the greatest day since I’ve been here and I’ve been here a long time,” said Sioux women’s basketball coach Gene Roebuck, who, in his 24 years at UND, has won three national titles. “We’re going into a quality conference.”

Roebuck and other coaches praised Faison and Kelley for their work in landing Sioux athletics into the Big Sky.

“Brian knew what to do because he’s been there and done that,” Roebuck said. “He gave us the opportunity to be selected into a very good conference. We don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes but whatever you guys did, you don’t need to tell anybody.”

There are 14 sports required by the Big Sky. UND will need to field a men’s tennis team to meet that requirement.

Also, there is a $250,000 entrance fee to join the Big Sky.

When UND joins the Big Sky, all Sioux athletic programs will be eligible for Division I postseason play as the school’s transition period will come to an end.

Football was a driving force in the Big Sky targeting UND. The Big Sky competes at the Division I Football Championship Subdivision and Fullerton said league presidents envision an opportunity to do something special.

“The moves we’ve made aren’t about protection,” Fullerton said. “If the talk out there is true that playing at the FBS level of football is unsustainable for many schools, then FCS will play an even bigger role in the future. The Big Sky presidents want the Big Sky to be the first major player coming from the FCS ranks.

“We have to change a lot of mindsets. Every time someone from our division has sustained success, the national media believes that school has to move up to the FBS level, and that’s not the case.”

If South Dakota becomes a member, the Big Sky will become a 14-team football conference split into two seven-team divisions to help control costs.

Current Big Sky members include Montana, Montana State, Idaho State, Eastern Washington, Portland State, Weber State, Northern Colorado, Sacramento State and Northern Arizona. In September, UC Davis and Cal Poly were added as football-only members of the Big Sky.

Wayne Nelson writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.