After years of expansion, the Big Sky Conference will get a little smaller in 2022.
Southern Utah joined with the Western Athletic Conference on Thursday morning to make official what had been reported for several months: that the Thunderbirds are leaving the Big Sky for the WAC.
The WAC’s joint press conference announced SUU’s addition to the conference along with Texas schools Abilene Christian, Lamar, Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin — and that the WAC will resurrect itself as a football conference at the FCS level.
The four Texas schools are existing FCS programs that compete in the Southland Conference and are expected to join the WAC this summer to start the 2021-22 school year. Southern Utah will join the WAC one year later for the 2022-23 season.
Those five join Dixie State and Tarleton State, WAC members with existing football programs who recently moved up to Division I as independents, to form a seven-team FCS football conference.
So continues SUU’s nomadic journey in Division I.
After a handful of years as a Division I independent starting in 1988, the Cedar City-based Thunderbirds played basketball in the Mid-Continental Conference, which was later renamed the Summit League, from 1997 to 2012, before joining the Big Sky. In football, Southern Utah competed in the FCS Great West Conference from 2004-2011.
The change also brings back WAC football, which has a deep history in the West, especially in Utah. The WAC sponsored FBS football from 1962-2012 and was the longtime home of BYU and Utah, and later Utah State. It disbanded in 2012 due to the domino effect precipitated by BYU, Utah and TCU leaving the Mountain West, and the Mountain West poaching the WAC to add Boise State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Jose State and USU.
Weber State may gain from Thursday’s news, as far as scheduling goes. In football, San Diego was the only non-Big Sky FCS team west of Texas; now, Dixie and SUU stand to provide expanded nonconference scheduling options.
SUU leaving the Big Sky, on the heels of Dixie’s move up to Division I, also provides many other Weber State teams another in-state possibility for nonconference play.
Come 2022, SUU’s departure will impact Big Sky schedules as well. It relieves some bloating in football, taking the league from 13 to 12 teams, and reduces sports like basketball from 11 to 10 — the latter should reduce league hoops schedules from 20 games to 18.
In women’s soccer, the Big Sky drops from 10 to nine teams, and softball is perhaps the most affected sport, shrinking to just six teams.
“The Big Sky Conference thanks Southern Utah University for its contributions to our league over the past decade, and we wish the Thunderbirds well in the future while we continue to work together collegially over the next 18 months,” the Big Sky said in a written statement.
“As we look ahead, the Big Sky is poised for unprecedented success with a committed and aspirational core of 10 full members, along with our affiliate members, as we continue our quest to be the preeminent FCS conference.”
Matt Brown, a writer about off-the-field forces in college athletics for his newsletter Extra Points, reported in October 2020 that the WAC was successfully pursuing Southern Utah and, in December, named the four Texas schools as coming WAC additions.
Information issued Thursday indicates current WAC member Texas-Rio Grande Valley intends to launch an FCS football program by 2023 or 2024, which would take the football league to eight teams.
Additionally, Chicago State announced it is leaving the WAC in 2022.
The WAC also said that outside of football and basketball, the league will be split into two divisions to cut down travel for other sports — the six Texas schools in one division, and the other division housing Seattle, Cal Baptist, Utah Valley, Southern Utah, Dixie State, Grand Canyon and New Mexico State.