Big Sky expanding to build a ‘new kind of conference’

It’s getting crowded in the Big Sky.

The Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks will soon get a bunch of new playmates as the Big Sky Conference opens its doors for the first time since 2006 when Northern Colorado joined the conference.

The University of North Dakota and Southern Utah University made the official announcement yesterday that they will both be joining the Big Sky in 2012 and the University of South Dakota is reportedly on the verge of making a similar announcement.

South Dakota is awaiting the completion of the approval process for entrance into the conference.  It’s done a little differently at each school, so the length of time to complete it differs.

Cal Poly and UC Davis had indicated earlier that they will also be joining as affiliate members, adding their football programs to the new Big Sky to give the conference 12 core members and 14 football members.

It’s all part of a grand plan to make the Big Sky Conference a “major player in football in the West,” as the conference commissioner, Doug Fullerton, explained.  Plans for the expansion were approved at the conference’s annual fall meeting Oct. 20.

“We’re building a new kind of FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) conference,” explained the Commish.  “The Big Sky presidents want the Big Sky to be the first major player coming from the FCS ranks.”

Southern Utah’s football program competes in the Great West Conference and the remainder of the school’s sports play in the Summit League.  North Dakota is also a member of the Great West.

UND is in its third year of a four-year transition process from NCAA D-I to D-II and will be eligible for D-I competition at the same time that it transitions to the Big Sky.  Primarily known for its nationally-ranked ice hockey teams, UND has won 11 national championships, seven in hockey, three in women’s basketball, and one in football.

The Big Sky was first formed in 1963 with six schools.  There are still four of those original teams left: Idaho State, Weber State, Montana, and Montana State.

Northern Arizona was the first new school to come on board after the conference was established.  The Lumberjacks joined the Big Sky in 1970, along with Boise State.  The Broncos hung around for a quarter-century before leaving for greener pastures, defecting to the Western Athletic Conference in 1996.

Today, the rest of the Big Sky roster is filled out by Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Portland State, and Sacramento State.

But there are rumors that Montana and Portland State may jump to the Western Athletic Conference.  And that would necessitate making some additional invitations.

The expansion plan put forth by the university presidents in the Big Sky calls for a 14-team football league, split into two seven-team divisions.  If either Montana or Portland State jump ship, or perhaps both leave, they would need to be replaced to keep the 14-team format.

So this whole expansion thing may not be over yet.

In the meantime, the Lumberjacks will need to get out the game film and start getting acquainted with their new neighbors.

(Photo: North Dakota Athletics)