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Tom Miller / Forum News Service, Published May 06 2013

Big Sky commissioner gives his thoughts on changing FCS landscape

GRAND FORKS – The college football landscape is rapidly transforming. So, where is it heading?

There are no definitive answers – only a laundry list of hypothetical possibilities.

As the veteran commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, Doug Fullerton is at the forefront of these swift changes.

Fullerton met with Big Sky athletic directors in late April during the league’s annual meeting. The chief topic: The constant conference shifting on the national scene and where that leaves the Big Sky, a league in which the University of North Dakota just completed its first season.

“Trying to figure out the end game – to get the Big Sky in the best possible position – can be tricky,” Fullerton said. “It’s hard to project where everything’s going, but we feel we have a handle on it.”

Here are four major questions facing the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, UND and the Big Sky:

1. Are we on the cusp of a three-tier system in college football, a revolutionary change that would attempt to better group universities with similar budgets?

The financial gaps between the haves and have-nots of the college football world continue to widen.

Those fiscal mismatches have created competitive imbalance. In the Football Bowl Subdivision, Conference USA is far from competitive with the SEC. The same can be said in the FCS: The Pioneer League is not challenging the Big Sky.

When it comes to athletic department budgets, the natural separation financially – and therefore competitively for the most part – is not at the current FCS and FBS line. Instead, the natural break actually occurs after about 60-70 programs, Fullerton said.

Right now, 124 programs play in FBS and 127 in FCS.

“There’s a bright line there,” Fullerton said. “Anyone who studies the economics of this business can see that.”

One suggestion to close those financial and competitive gaps is to create three levels of Division I college football, an idea that seems to be generating steam.

Most of those discussions to this point center on the second tier consisting of a set of conferences coined “The Group of Five,” which includes Conference USA, Mid-American, American Athletic (new conference primarily made up of former Big East members), Mountain West and Sun Belt – all FBS members.

2. With the Big Ten Conference announcing preliminary plans to no longer play FCS schools, will that idea spread to other major conferences and create financial problems around the FCS?

Last Sunday, the Big Ten Conference announced its intention to no longer schedule FCS programs. The reasoning is an effort to build up the league’s strength of schedule for postseason opportunities, as well as to provide stronger television ratings with more marquee programs.

The real worry for FCS programs isn’t in the short term, as teams can find guarantee money games in other conferences. But the concern is in whether the Big Ten’s edict becomes a trend.

“What if the Big 12 doesn’t schedule FCS?” Fullerton said.

UND hasn’t played a Big Ten opponent because some schools in the league had a policy against playing UND because of the school’s Fighting Sioux nickname.

With the nickname no longer an issue to the NCAA, UND was in preliminary discussions to schedule the University of Minnesota for seasons beyond 2016 – until last Sunday’s news likely nixed those talks.

The draw for UND to play the Big Ten is a money game within driving distance, saving on the costs of flying an entire football team and staff to a guarantee game outside the region.

Since moving up to Division I, UND has played money games against Idaho, Texas Tech, Northern Illinois, Fresno State and San Diego State.

The Texas Tech guarantee to UND was $350,000. The Fresno State guarantee was $250,000.

3. Is the FCS turning into a watered-down league, a comparable situation that led the four major Dakota schools to leave NCAA Division II for Division I in the first place?

A handful of powers left the ranks of Division II in the 1990s and early 2000s, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and eventually UND and South Dakota made the move to Division I.

Part of the reasoning for the move was a change in ideals that existed when the larger athletic departments left Division II. Smaller schools wanted to reduce budgets by trimming football scholarships.

UND and the rest of the Dakota schools, which could afford higher amounts of student aid, essentially outgrew their Division II counterparts.

Some are drawing the comparisons of the change in Division II to the current situation at the FCS level. In the past couple of seasons, history-rich programs such as Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Old Dominion decided to make the move from FCS to FBS.

“You don’t want to look around and say that the programs we’re playing are unlike us,” Fullerton said. “I owe my institutions that. We’re spending energy to strengthen FCS. If you ask me if we’re being successful, I have no idea.”

4. Is the Big Sky destined for an FBS future?

If a three-tier system doesn’t formulate and teams in the Big Sky Conference aren’t happy with their peers in FCS, a future in the FBS isn’t as far-fetched as it might first seem.

The Big Sky does possess some programs with an FBS appearance.

“With UND, Montana, Montana State – we look more like an FBS league,” Fullerton said.

Yet, he adds an important qualifier to that: “TV sets hold us back a little bit,” – meaning broadcast rights and the revenue potential tied to that are somewhat limited based on population.

Even though it might end up as the necessary course of action, Fullerton is cautious of moving up in the current landscape.

“People who cross that line right now aren’t in real good position to compete,” he said. “If you’re in the fourth quadrant, you’re asking nothing more than to spend more and have less success.”

Advocates of the move up point to the success stories of Boise State and Nevada – two former Big Sky programs.

“After that, though,” Fullerton said, “it’s real fuzzy if you can cross over for the long run.”

The waiting game

In the end, UND and the Big Sky can be as prepared as possible, but they’re still playing the waiting game with the rest of the country to see how the changing landscape plays out.

“We feel real good about our stability,” Fullerton said. “We’re very pleased with where we have been able to position ourselves. We’re at the top of the FCS. We control a huge geographical area. I know this isn’t a game of War, but it speaks to recruiting areas. We see that there are only three (Division I) conferences playing football in the West now.

“We spent a lot of time (at the AD meetings) talking about how one cannot ignore what’s going on around us. We’ve been successful at watching and anticipating, but that doesn’t give us the license to sit back.”

Miller writes for the Grand Forks Herald