This is part two of two in a conversation with Big Sky deputy commissioner Ron Loghry about the state of the conference. Read part one about changes to the conference basketball tournament.
OGDEN — It’s been a quiet few years in the landscape of college conference expansion since 2011. That year saw Utah and BYU change conference affiliations, while the Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, Big East and Mountain West all saw major changes.
One of the only blips since was Wichita State leaving the Missouri Valley for the American Athletic Conference last year.
But the winds of change are blowing again. The San Diego Union-Tribune last week reported Gonzaga is talking with the Mountain West about membership, a move that could involve BYU. Just Wednesday, the same reporter said discussions are further along than you might think.
That could create shifts all through the West. Other Mountain West targets could include New Mexico State and Grand Canyon, which would decimate the Western Athletic Conference.
Aside from the Gonzaga drama, the Big Sky is losing North Dakota in all sports — the Hawks are moving to the Summit League (and Missouri Valley for football) — while adding Idaho’s football program as the Vandals become a full member.
BIG SKY EXPANSION?
“(The schools are) always open to opportunities, but we are not actively looking for new membership,” Loghry said.
“We talk about what’s the right size for the conference, what are we looking to do, what best benefits the conference as a whole? Is it getting to ‘X’ amount, and how do we do that? Or is it divisional play — it’s no secret, we’re at 13 in football. We have teams that don’t play for two years ... everybody wants Montana at home. If you don’t play Montana at home for three years, that’s a conference breaker.
“I was part of the University of Wyoming when the WAC went to 16 and the writing was on the wall with that thing as soon as the schedule came out. ‘Hey, I don’t play BYU for three years. This isn’t going to work.’
“That’s at the mindset of a lot of people in our conference. Are we doing the right thing, and if there need to be corrections, how do you go about doing that?
“But no, we are not looking. We feel very fortunate Idaho is coming to be a complete member in all sports. They’ll join in football and hit the ground running, a program like that will elevate us. We feel football will ascend.
“But you need to keep up with an ear to the ground always. In college athletics, things can happen overnight. I don’t perceive Idaho to be the last institution to think FCS is an option. The arms race is getting really bad out there for the conferences that can’t produce money.”
IDAHO & NEW MEXICO STATE
In 2016, reports surfaced that the Big Sky was trying to bring New Mexico State into the fold in addition to Idaho.
“When the Sun Belt decided they were going to move their membership more to their footprint, both those schools were out. So it just made sense that Idaho began talking to the Big Sky because all their other teams are with us,” Loghry said.
“But football going to FCS, that was a very hard decision for them. It still resonates with their fanbase and I think it will for years. I think it will be a great thing for them. When their fans see Montana, Eastern Washington and Idaho State in their arena ... I think their fans will appreciate it.
“With New Mexico State ... we gauged if there was mutual interest. They were not interested in it at this time for their football, and frankly, our institutions weren’t interested in having them in the conference for everything else; it had to be everything. So it never went any further than that ... we haven’t had any more conversations with them about it.”
20 BASKETBALL GAMES
With North Dakota leaving, the Big Sky will have 11 basketball programs. Teams don’t currently play all others twice in the 18-game schedule format — Weber State played Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington only once this season — but dropping to 11 creates the possibility of playing a true round-robin with the other 10 teams, meaning 20 conference games.
In December 2017, Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee told the Standard-Examiner he expected the Big Sky to move to 20 conference games, but not until the 2019-20 school year.
Loghry said that was initially the idea, but, because of mathematical problems, he now sees the conference moving to 20 games next season.
He met with the conference’s scheduling consultant, which also does work with the NFL, the NBA and many college conferences.
“We literally got to the 14th version of a schedule before we just said, ‘this is a mess,’” Loghry said. “We showed it to our administrators and, right now, they’re going back to their coaches saying ‘how much would it infringe on you if we move it to 20 immediately?’
“I’ve made a point of going to every game as teams come through (Ogden) and talking to the teams that play Weber, talking to the coach and asking that. Almost to a man, coaches said ‘we’ve got to go to 20, this is hard what we’re doing now.’”
NINE FOOTBALL GAMES
Similarly, the conference was looking at increasing conference football games from eight to nine. The addition of Idaho made that an easy add, Loghry said, but North Dakota’s departure nixed that move. Planning a nine-game conference schedule with 13 teams would mean one school would have to play a 10th conference game each year to give another school their ninth game.
“One team is playing a conference game and one isn’t,” Loghry said. “You’d be playing two different games on the same field. There’s a way to do it, but it’s not functional.”