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Tom Miller / Forum Communications Co., Published February 09 2012

UND AD says Big Sky has 'major concern' about UND nickname

GRAND FORKS – Members of the Big Sky Conference have increased their concern over the inclusion of the University of North Dakota because of the NCAA sanctions connected to the ongoing Fighting Sioux nickname controversy, North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison said Thursday.

Faison participated in a monthly conference call of Big Sky athletic directors Wednesday morning in which Faison updated league members of his school’s situation. On Tuesday, nickname supporters turned in roughly 16,770 signatures on a petition, which could force a state-wide vote on the controversial issue.

“The biggest concern I have is the tone has gotten more serious,” Faison said. “They’ve gone from concern to major concern now. How patient, ultimately, the presidents will be with where we find ourselves? I can’t say. It’s absolutely frightening to think what would happen if we lost our Big Sky membership.”

Faison said a handful of league athletic directors raised questions during the conference call. “The inability to host NCAA postseason games is certainly an issue,” he said. “That weighs on them.”

League members also have unease because of their proximity to American Indian populations, he said.

“At the end of the day, they don’t want it on their campus,” Faison said. “It’s not their issue.

“I appreciate the fact that (the Big Sky presidents) have been patient and monitored this process along the way. But the great fear is if we lose Big Sky membership, it will be cataclysmic to the program.”

Faison also addressed the idea from some nickname supporters that the school’s administration has been misleading in the league affiliation process.

“The Big Sky is a legit concern,” he said. “Whether people want to believe it or not, I can’t help that. I know it. I’ve been in this business 35-plus years, and I’m telling you we have a problem. And the answers to solve that problem if it goes down are not there. We can’t exist as a Division I independent.

“As far as conspiracy concerns, I leave that with the JFK folks. It’s reality that we are where we are. It’s reality that I’ve talked to Joel Maturi (Minnesota athletic director) and Sean Frazier (Wisconsin deputy athletic director) and we’ve been working on schedules for 2013-14, but that stops because of the nickname and logo. They can’t play us. That’s reality. That’s nothing I’ve made up. That’s been on the books for eight years. We lost a home and home with the University of Iowa in women’s basketball – the opportunity to host a Big Ten team here. This isn’t fiction. This is all real and we have to deal with reality. That’s my job.”

Faison stressed the importance of competing against men’s hockey rivals Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“I’ve heard from some fans that say it doesn’t matter if we can’t schedule Minnesota,” Faison said. “I look at them incredulously (and say), ‘Really?’ Of course it matters.”

In the meantime, the athletic department is scrambling to transition back to the use of “Fighting Sioux” to comply with state law.

Announcers of UND sporting events have been instructed to refer to the athletic programs as the Fighting Sioux again. UND’s television broadcasts will revert back to being branded as the Fighting Sioux Sports Network, beginning next weekend.

At the UND women’s basketball game Thursday night against Chicago State, the team took the floor to the public address announcer proclaiming, “Here come your Fighting Sioux.” The scoreboard also referred to the home team as the Sioux.

“We want to make sure we are in compliance with the law,” Faison said. “Could that all turn around next week? Yeah, it could, I guess. I’m not an attorney and I don’t know what would go on if the state board decided to do something. We just have to be ready.”

Faison was referencing the North Dakota State Board of Higher Education, which is expected to convene Monday to challenge the constitutionality of the Sioux nickname law.

He said the UND women’s hockey team will have the option of wearing its Sioux jerseys when the team returns home from this weekend’s games in Mankato, Minn.

Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald