Posted: May 22, 2012 9:36 AM by Derek Buerkle (KPAX Sports)
Updated: May 22, 2012 9:37 AM
MISSOULA- The Big Sky Conference will expand this coming fall with Southern Utah and North Dakota joining in every sport and Cal Poly and UC Davis joining just for football.
It started with some of the biggest schools in the country and trickled down to all the others. Two summers ago it seemed every university was checking if the grass was greener in the other conference and many decided it was.
The Montana Grizzlies flirted with a move to the WAC, putting the future of the Big Sky in doubt. But when President Royce Engstrom and his colleagues all decided to stay put the conference went from in trouble to better than ever.
"I was proud of the Big Sky presidents to hold together. Because six of them were approached by the WAC over the last 12 months, and they held together. And my comment to them was, we can win this game," Big Sky Conference Commissioner Doug Fullerton said.
And it does look like the conference is winning. After striking out with the Big Sky schools and several other defections, the WAC will only have two football teams left in the fall of 2013, leaving the Pac-12, the Mountain West, and the Big Sky as the only places to watch Division I football west of Texas.
One of those two schools left in limbo is the University of Idaho which gave up their rivalry battles for the Little Brown Stein in 2003, the last time they played the Grizzlies. Idaho left the Big Sky in 1996, but now the conference is making it clear that they want the Vandals back.
Fullerton is using the same sales pitch that he used to keep Montana put a couple years ago.
"What we tell the University of Idaho is that, quite frankly if it wasn't for the name FCS that bothered your fans, you will have better athletics and a better experience at the top of the FCS than the bottom of FBS. You're probably playing with about a $20 million budget, and you're trying to chase people like the University of Texas at $140 million budget. You can't get there."
"I've been around this a long time. I'd rather win than lose. So, I'd rather be first than last anytime. You look at Idaho, it's a tragedy. They were so competitive in the Big Sky, year in and year out. You know, they've had one successful season since they moved to Division I," Griz football coach Mick Delaney said.
While the Big Sky is still looking for more members Fullerton says they want to make sure any new schools fit in with the current collection. And there is some danger in getting too big.
"You must always be careful that you don't get 16 into a league, because you may wake up some morning and have two eight team leagues."
The Big Sky Conference last expanded in 2005 when Northern Colorado joined. But during that same year the conference decided not to invite North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
They both would have added strong teams to the league. In the last year alone, the Bison won the FCS National Championship, and the Jackrabbits men's and women's basketball teams earned a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Fullerton sounds regretful when reliving that decision. "I wasn't able to put together enough votes. I didn't do a good enough job of letting presidents see the vision."
But he added that everything happens for a reason and with 11 schools and 13 football teams the Big Sky Conference came out of a time of uncertainty on top.
Tune in to the 10:00 News on Montana's News Station to learn how the Big Sky Conference expansion will make next seas quite different for the Montana Grizzlies.