North Dakota's exit from the Big Sky Conference in the coming years is a mutually beneficial move for the Fighting Hawks and the athletics league as a whole, Big Sky Commissioner Andrea Williams said Friday.
A member since 2012, North Dakota has experienced a good deal of success since joining the Big Sky, including a share of the conference's football championship this past fall. But in an age of ever-increasing athletic costs, and with UND facing a budget shortfall, the Big Sky worked with remote North Dakota to evaluate its conference membership over the past several months.
"A lot of the woes that North Dakota was facing as it relates to their budget and what they were looking at, those are some financial implications (of the exit) for the Big Sky in a positive way as well," Williams said Friday during a conference call.
North Dakota announced Thursday its intentions to join the Summit League for the 2018-19 school year in all sports except football and hockey; its football team leaves the Big Sky for the Missouri Valley Football Conference in 2020. The decision comes less than a year after a change in leadership at UND with Mark Kennedy taking over as president last March.
In April, UND announced it will cut baseball and men's golf -- the latter was reinstated thanks to independent fundraising -- for financial reasons, and in August Kennedy said the school would explore its conference affiliation.
With UND's impending exit, the Big Sky will shrink its footprint considerably. The Grand Forks, North Dakota school marked the conference's only representative in the Central Time Zone, an 800-mile trek or more to every other school in the league. That created immense travel costs for the Hawks -- but also for every other league school.
By joining the Summit, North Dakota is reunited with natural rivals like South Dakota, South Dakota State and nearby North Dakota State, just 75 miles down I-29.
"I'm really excited for North Dakota," Montana Athletic Director Kent Haslam said. "This gets them back to their core rivals. Could you imagine us in a different conference than Montana State? It just doesn't make any sense."
This week's announcement is just the latest in a long string of conference affiliation changes in recent years.
The nine-school Big Sky swelled in 2012 when North Dakota and Southern Utah joined along with football-only members Cal Poly and UC Davis. Two years later Idaho returned in all sports but football after an extended absence, making the Big Sky a 12-team league for sports like basketball and volleyball. Last April, Idaho announced it would drop from FBS to the FCS and the Big Sky in football starting in 2018, boosting football-playing membership to an expected 14.
Haslam said Montana had recently begun preparations for football scheduling for 2020 and beyond on the assumption the league would continue playing an eight-game conference schedule rather than the proposed nine-game schedule that could accompany a move to 14 teams. UND's future --and the Big Sky's in turn -- was too fluid.
The frequent realignments make looking too far ahead difficult, but Haslam said it's the world schools have accepted.
"It just changes so much that you get to the point where you kind of don't plan on anything," he said. "You've got to move ahead based on what you've got right now and then adjust as you go."
Commissioner Williams, who assumed the position just last summer, said the league isn't anticipating any other imminent changes to its membership. The next step is discussing conference schedule options with the institutions' respective coaches and administrators to find a balance for a soon-to-be 11-school league with again 13 football programs.
The Big Sky has had no discussions for a replacement for North Dakota or an attempt to further downsize to reach an even number of schools, Williams said.
"Right now the short answer is no, we're comfortable at our number and we plan on moving forward with what we have," Williams said. "... That's where we are today, but we meet with our administrators and presidents this summer and you never know what might pop up on the agenda."