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Kevin Schnepf, Published June 12 2011

Schnepf: Nickname issue could get Sioux lost in space

FARGO - Take a look at the map on the front page of today’s sports section. It’s the one packaged with Jeff Kolpack’s story that compares the Big Sky Conference, future home for University of North Dakota athletics, and the Summit League, the five-year-old home for North Dakota State athletics.

Take a look at where UND is located in reference to the other Big Sky schools. If you think that looks isolated now, wait and see if Big Sky presidents decide to abandon UND because of the never-ending Sioux nickname controversy.

UND, without a conference, could become as secluded as those astronauts in the 1969 movie “Marooned.” Big Sky officials strongly suggest as much in a story that broke Saturday. Even the headline in Saturday’s Grand Forks Herald implied space travel: “Big Sky: UND we have a problem.”

Yes it does … just like the three American astronauts who were stranded in space in “Marooned.” Could they be rescued in time before their oxygen ran out?

During its three-year transition to Division I athletics, UND must feel like it has been orbiting around the planet, going around and around in circles, finally reaching a deal with the NCAA to get rid of the nickname. Then last November when the Big Sky Conference invited them to become a member last year, UND felt as much relief as an Apollo mission landing safely back to Earth.

All systems go.

Then, out of nowhere, UND’s mission hit a major snag – much like “Marooned,” in which the Ironman One spacecraft was unable to fire its retro rockets.

UND’s retros were snuffed out a few months ago when North Dakota state legislators strangely decided to make the Sioux nickname an issue again. When everyone thought it was a dead issue and UND was braced to move on and find a new nickname, state legislators made it a law that UND use the Sioux nickname.

UND, we have a problem.

The problem is that some state legislators think they can persuade the NCAA in changing its mind and let UND use the Sioux nickname. Don’t count on it. The NCAA has already rejected one invitation to have a meeting with the North Dakota lawmakers.

The NCAA, which oversees hundreds of schools like UND, carries clout – enough that Big Sky presidents feel the ongoing nickname controversy “has the possibility of destroying Division I athletics at the University of North Dakota.” Understandably, that’s not good for the Big Sky.

In the movie “Marooned,” NASA officials think they might have to abandon the Ironman One in orbit. Likewise, Big Sky officials think they might have to abandon UND.

In the movie “Marooned,” NASA officials decide to launch a daring rescue. If such a rescue is to occur for UND athletics, the Sioux nickname has to be abandoned.

There aren’t many other options. If state legislators keep insisting that UND use the nickname, the only alternative is going independent (can you say scheduling nightmare?) or moving away from the NCAA to the NAIA. Hey, the depleted Dakota Athletic Conference is looking for members.

UND, we have a problem.

The problem is the result of some late-reacting legislators who thought the Sioux nickname should stay. Where was this sentiment during the early stages of UND’s mission to move to Division I?

Then there is the captain of this mission, UND athletic director Brian Faison. In his unsuccessful plea to lawmakers, he reasoned that keeping the nickname will ultimately hurt the student-athletes at UND. It will if the Big Sky rejects UND as a member, which one official said could happen “very easily.”

In the movie “Marooned,” the astronauts are eventually saved. As difficult as it was to lose an expensive spacecraft, Ironman One was left drifting into space.

As difficult as it will be to give up a sentimental nickname, the Sioux logo too must be allowed to drift into space … so UND doesn’t become marooned.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com