Jeff Kolpack, Published June 12 2011
How they stack up? Analysis of NDSU's, UND's conferences shows some big differencees
UND will enter Big Sky competition in the fall of 2012, a conference that has the reigning Division I Football Championship Subdivision titleholder in Eastern Washington. After a few years of scheduling nightmares, including this fall when the Sioux play the likes of Montana Western and the University of Sioux Falls at home, a Big Sky schedule represents a back-to-normalcy slate.
“It’s been difficult to get quality games in Grand Forks,” said UND athletic director Brian Faison.
NDSU, meanwhile, plays its football in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Most of its other sports belong to the Summit, a conference that includes five members that do not sponsor football.
Both schools have conference homes that have different strengths. For instance, the Big Sky has stability in its favor with just four former members in the last 29 years. But the Summit is moving toward a tighter geographical footprint, and therefore less travel, with the additions of the University of South Dakota this year and Nebraska-Omaha in 2012-13.
The Coyotes dabbled with the Big Sky before the Missouri Valley Football Conference made a last-second move and made an offer.
“The primary decision was staying with the teams we identified with and wanted to be playing,” said USD athletic director David Sailer. “When we had the choice between the two … combined with the money, student welfare travel issue and time zones, it was a no brainer.”
NDSU travels Midwest, UND heads West
NDSU’s farthest league foe is Oakland (Mich.) University at 944 highway miles. Montana State, meanwhile, will be UND’s closest member at 856 miles and seven of the schools are at least 1,000 miles away from Grand Forks.
“The Big Sky will be a pretty hefty travel situation,” Faison admits.
NDSU’s travel, meanwhile, is getting leaner with the Summit departure of its two farthest competitors. Centenary College (La.) is dropping to NCAA Division III this summer and Southern Utah will move to the Big Sky in 2012-13.
“When you’re going through commercial flights, it becomes not only a cost factor but the wear and tear of layovers,” said NDSU athletic director Gene Taylor.
When NDSU first made the move to NCAA Division I, it applied for membership into the Big Sky, but was rejected. Ironically, Taylor said, it worked out for the better, especially when it comes to travel.
“As we have now discovered, our air travel is much easier on our teams than I think the Big Sky would be just because we’re mainly flying into major airports and pretty much in the central part of the country,” Taylor said. “As hard as the Southern Utah trip was on our teams, to do that every week in the Big Sky I think is going to be a challenge.”
Budget-wise, the challenge for UND won’t change much from recent years with the travel in the Great West Conference. That league literally spans the country, from Utah Valley University to New Jersey Institute of Technology. Where the increase will come is in the price of fuel and inflation, Faison said.
Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said the league will try and minimize travel complications with a schedule that mandates a school playing its two geographical closest schools and rotating the rest on a yearly basis.
“It’s a little bit out of the footprint,” Fullerton said of UND. “But it’s funny, in football, you’re playing nonconference and traveling anyway. Now when you get into a sport like tennis, that’s going to be uncomfortable at times but it’s worth it in what we’re getting back.”
The league will have 11 core-sports schools in 2012-13 with the addition of UND and Southern Utah. California Poly and California Davis will join as football affiliate members that year.
It won’t be cheap for UND, which last year had a total operating athletic budget of almost $17 million.
Getting to Grand Forks will require at least one connection for every Big Sky school. The only daily flight into Grand Forks International is a Delta Airlines route to Minneapolis. The Summit has a similar situation with NDSU, albeit less distance with Fargo having daily connections to Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City.
By 2012-13, Summit schools will be able to use the bus more than they ever have. When commissioner Thomas Douple came aboard in 2005, that was a priority.
“We came in and identified we wanted to get back to a Midwest footprint,” he said. “And that’s what we did.”
NDSU’s Missouri Valley Football Conference is also generally a Midwest footprint. The parent conference, the Missouri Valley, has only five football-playing schools, so they align with NDSU, Western Illinois and South Dakota State of the Summit and Youngstown State of the Horizon League.
Only SDSU is a bus trip. Last year, NDSU’s travel budget for football was $500,000.
Success similar for both schools’ conferences
In one sense, the breakup of the old NCAA Division II North Central Conference is now complete. NDSU, South Dakota State, USD and UNO have made the Division I leap to the Summit. UND and Northern Colorado made the D-I jump and landed in the Big Sky. Morningside went to NAIA while St. Cloud State, Augustana and Minnesota State Mankato appear destined to stay in Division II athletics for the foreseeable future.
The NCC was considered one of the premier leagues, if not the best, in Division II. That’s not the case with NDSU’s Summit and UND’s Big Sky in Division I.
Success on a nationwide basis is probably best measured in men’s basketball and specifically the NCAA tournament. Which league is better?
Statistically, the Summit has the edge.
The Summit has an 8-26 record in tournament play, a 31 percent winning percentage. The Big Sky is 12-49, a winning clip of 24 percent. In the NCAA women’s basketball tourney, the Summit is 2-19 and the Big Sky 4-23.
“Men’s basketball at the mid-major level garners most of the recognition,” Douple said. “But we’re striving to be broad based.”
In terms of overall programs, however, the Big Sky has a statistical edge in the Learfield Cup, which measures overall program performance in Division I. In its point system, Big Sky schools currently average 61.8 points per school while the Summit is at 40.9.
The perception of just being a football league, Fullerton said, is something his league presidents want to change. The aim is to challenge the Western Athletic Conference as the third major conference in the West.
“If we want to do that, then we have to live up to that,” Fullerton said. “It will be a significant change in the way we do business and what we expect of institutions. But, yes, we’re probably better known for football because the FCS fits us so well.”
Football is a different animal in that it’s the only Division I sport broken into two divisions: the major Football Bowl Subdivision teams and the Football Championship Subdivision, which was formerly called Division I-AA and determines its champion with a postseason 20-team tournament format.
Both the Big Sky and Missouri Valley Football have won five national titles, with Youngstown having four of them for the MVFC.
Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found