GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The Summit League slightly opened a window of opportunity for the University of North Dakota last week, agreeing to consider the school for membership during an upcoming meeting of the league's presidents.
That's good news for the majority of UND's athletic teams looking for long-term conference affiliation -- the No. 1 goal for the school when it made the move to NCAA Division I athletics two years ago.
The Summit, however, doesn't offer football.
So, where does that leave the Sioux football program -- one of the marquee athletic programs at UND? Where will UND call home in five, 10 years from now?
"That's the most critical aspect of our program," UND coach Chris Mussman said. "If we don't get a long-term conference home, it's going to be a very difficult road."
Scheduling football games is a difficult task for the Sioux as a fledgling Division I FCS program. The Sioux play in the five-team Great West Conference, meaning UND needs to schedule six or seven games each season.
UND finally landed an 11th game for the 2010 season recently, as the Sioux will play at South Dakota State on Nov. 20. Until the last few weeks, however, it was beginning to look like UND would play a 10-game schedule, which the Sioux did in 2008 -- its first DI season.
UND's athletic challenges in the past few seasons have been numerous. The department has had to deal with, among other things, increased expenses, more travel, and the swirling Fighting Sioux nickname and logo controversy.
But finding a long-term football home remains a problem -- one without many solutions.
"All you have to do is look around and see that it's not there," UND athletic director Brian Faison said of established conference possibilities for football. "But we'll keep plugging away."
The lack of an established conference, one with an appropriate number that eases scheduling concerns, has resulted in UND facing a demanding 2010 season.
"We're going to open with two bowl teams (Idaho and Northern Illinois) on the road and we also have two FCS playoff teams (Montana and SDSU) on the schedule, both on the road," Mussman said. "I don't mind that. But, it would be nice to have some consistency in scheduling."
In 2011, UND again is at Idaho and also will play at Fresno State -- a powerful FBS program -- a week after its trip to play the Vandals.
The Great West Conference, for now, does give UND an opportunity to play for a league championship. And it provides other benefits, as well. The small league's champion, however, does not automatically qualify for the FCS playoffs.
When UND becomes playoff eligible in 2012, the only way the Sioux can reach the FCS playoffs will be through an at-large bid.
Realistically, there are only two leagues that make sense for a long-term Sioux football home -- the Missouri Valley Conference and Big Sky Conference.
"We've contacted some leagues," Mussman said. "And we've heard rumblings that the Missouri Valley may want to expand. But the Big Sky has dug its heels into the ground, saying they don't want to expand."
The Missouri Valley currently has nine football teams, an "optimum" number for a league, according to commissioner Patti Viverito.
The Valley, which includes North Dakota State and South Dakota State, has not talked recently about expansion. Nor are any talks on the horizon.
However, Viverito said NDSU and SDSU didn't generate any talk from the Valley until "they were firmly stationed in an all-sports league."
After making the move to Division I in 2004, NDSU and SDSU both became stationary members of the established Summit League. And both eventually wound up as football members of the Missouri Valley.
Now that the Summit has made a gesture to UND regarding potential membership, is it possible UND could be a future Missouri Valley team?
"Assuming they get in, then I suppose there is an opportunity for some conversation," Viverito said.
South Dakota is in the same situation as UND. The Coyotes also want to find a long-term football home. The Coyotes also belong to the Great West but already have been accepted into the Summit, beginning in 2011.
Nine teams, however, comprise a perfect football conference for scheduling, as the Missouri Valley knows. It allows for eight league games, a money game and -- preferably -- two favorable nonconference contests.
If the Missouri Valley was to add UND and South Dakota, the league could be split into two divisions.
An 11-team league, conceivably, could result in more playoff teams -- something all conferences want to see.
"That's working for the Colonial Athletic Association," Faison said.
The CAA has 12 football members with two divisions.
Last season, four teams advanced to the FCS playoffs, with CAA member Villanova taking the national title.