OGDEN, Utah - The Big Sky Conference is trying super on for size.

The league that's been home to the Montana Grizzlies since 1963 announced Monday that North Dakota and Southern Utah have accepted invitations to join as core members, and that South Dakota is on its way - bringing the number of football-playing institutions to 14.

North Dakota and Southern Utah will officially join the Big Sky on July 1, 2012, with work beginning immediately on scheduling, marketing and other conference matters. Both institutions, as well as USD, received formal invitations on Oct. 29, after presidents of the nine current core Big Sky members voted in favor of expansion on Oct. 20.

"The presidents wanted to position the Big Sky Conference as a major player in football in the West," Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton said in a release. "But most importantly, we wanted the right kinds of schools.

"Our presidents have always been driven by adding institutions that fit with the schools we currently have. We've added two institutions that meet the criteria, and we've positioned ourselves to meet the visions of the presidents. We're building a new kind of Football Championship Subdivision conference."

Monday's additions bring the future Big Sky to 11 core members and 13 football-playing members. South Dakota will make it 12 and 14. In September the league announced that Cal Poly and UC Davis would join as affiliate members for football. They'll compete in 2012 as well, most likely in a Big Sky that's split into two subdivisions.

In the release Fullerton said the expansions weren't a case of the league preparing for the potential loss of teams to the Football Bowl Subdivision, but of strengthening the case for the Football Championship Subdivision.

One line, not attributed to Fullerton, reads: The Big Sky does not anticipate losing any of its current nine core members. He backed off from that later Monday.

"Maybe I should say that the league does not want to lose anyone," said Fullerton, mindful that the Western Athletic Conference is courting UM. "Let me say this: If you look at what the Big Sky is now embarking on, and you look at what I think we can become at the FCS level. ... if I were to make that decision, I know where that would fall.

"Probably that statement was a little bit of hopeful thinking. I can also say that we have no knowledge that anybody is leaving at this particular time."

Jim O'Day, Montana's athletic director, said as much Monday when he spoke of the league's moves.

"It's something I think the Big Sky has to do," O'Day said. "It's similar to what the WAC is going to do in the next few days, when they announce an expansion. It will not include Montana - we're not to that point yet - but they have to do their due diligence."


The Big Sky had previous opportunities to expand and added Northern Colorado on July 1, 2006 - but passed on adding North Dakota State and South Dakota State. The Bison and Jackrabbits now play in the Missouri Valley Conference for football and Summit League for basketball.

"I don't think that was a mistake," Fullerton said passing on NDSU and SDSU. "I think things have changed in the West. Without getting too deep into it, there's an opportunity out here in the West that triggered our thinking that wasn't (there) five years ago. Some of it is reaction to some of the things that have happened out here."

The ever-changing landscape at the Football Bowl Subdivision level - Utah's intended move from the Mountain West to the Pac-10, plus Nevada, Boise State and Fresno State going from the WAC to the Mountain West - put the league's school presidents in two-minute mode.

"The whole Mountain West-WAC thing happened," Fullerton said. "As we started talking about it the whole vision caught on, and that's a major change."

Before Northern Colorado, the Big Sky last added teams in 1996: Cal State-Northridge, which later dropped football, Portland State and Sacramento State jumped in the same year Boise State and Idaho moved out.

"We're very, very excited about this new direction we've taken over the last three or four months," Fullerton said. "This is a new effort on our part to be something different, to be something bigger than what we've been in the past. I applaud the presidents. They really have a vision of doing something very special for the Big Sky Conference."

"Today marks the culmination of many years of effort on the part of countless people committed to Southern Utah University and its future," said Southern Utah President Michael T. Benson. "We are delighted to accept a spot within the Big Sky Conference as a full member."

"We are excited to be joining the Big Sky Conference," said UND President Robert O. Kelley. "This is the best of all possibilities for the University of North Dakota. We will be competing with some of our comparable peers in higher education - schools that look and perform like the University of North Dakota."


Southern Utah, located in Cedar City, Utah, currently competes in the Great West for football and the Summit League for other sports.

Southern Utah's men's basketball team won the Summit League Championship in 2001, advancing to the NCAA men's basketball tournament. On Saturday, the Thunderbirds clinched their first Great West football championship.

North Dakota began the transition from Division II to Division I in 2007, and will be eligible for all Big Sky and NCAA Championships in 2012-13. North Dakota currently competes in the Great West Conference for most of its sports.

Its football program won the Division II national championship in 2001 and was second in 2003, and its women's basketball teams captured three Division II national championships under veteran coach Gene Roebuck.

North Dakota also features one of the top hockey programs in the nation. The Fighting Sioux have won seven NCAA Championships, and play in the $100 million Engelstad Arena, considered one of the finest hockey facilities in the world.

Like North Dakota, South Dakota began the transition to Division I in 2007 and will be eligible for Big Sky and NCAA Championships starting with the 2012-13 season.

"(As for) the agreement between the league and the institution, there's nothing left to do," said Fullerton. "Now it's up to the institution to work it through their approval process, which includes their Board of Regents."

The Big Sky Conference formed in 1963 with six members. Four of those original members - Montana, Montana State, Idaho State and Weber State - are still with the league.

Reporter Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247 or at fneighbor@missoulian.com.


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