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TOM MILLER: Idaho rejoins the Big Sky

Tom Miller

Tuesday marked the official moving day for many NCAA Division I athletic programs changing conference affiliation, including Idaho’s return to the Big Sky Conference in all sports except football.

If you can wrap your head around the latest movements, you might get a chance to catch your breath this time — even if it’s just for a little while. The revolving door of conference movement appears to be at least slowing down. Still, take a look at what shook out on Tuesday:

  •  UND has a new conference partner. Idaho’s non-football sports return to the Big Sky, a league it helped form in 1963.

Idaho football, though, remains FBS. The Vandals played independent football in 2013 after the Western Athletic Conference crumbled around Moscow. Idaho football now enters the Sun Belt Conference, which recently added former FCS powers Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.

  •  UND’s friends to the south at North Dakota State also have a new league pal. Oral Roberts, of Tulsa, Okla., is now back in the Summit League after a two-year stint in the Southland Conference. ORU’s move to the Summit stabilizes the league that was on shaky ground two years ago before ORU and Denver decided to align with NDSU, South Dakota State and South Dakota, among others.

UND and NDSU are far from alone in being impacted by conference revolving. Nationally, more than 40 percent of the 128 schools to play at the FBS level this coming season will have made at least one conference move over the past 10 years.

Starting Tuesday, the American Athletic Conference replaced Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) with Conference USA-departing East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Maryland also ditched the ACC for the Big Ten.

After Tuesday’s dizzying round of movement, the changes on the national level appear to be slowing as conference and NCAA regulations, locked-in league television deals and current court cases are cautioning further change.

Schools have a wait-and-see approach to the NCAA’s O’Bannon case, which pertains to athletes getting paid for the use of their likeness in video games.

Athletic departments would also like to see what kind of fallout results from the Power Five conferences seeking autonomy and the ability to provide stipends or full cost of attendance to athletes.

With pause at the top of Division I, that means the trickle-down-effect to UND should also slow. However, keep in mind conference realignment will never have a true end game. With conference changes, it’s safe to never say never.

Although Idaho’s movements became official Tuesday, UND and the Big Sky will keep an eye on Vandal football, which has struggled to compete at the FBS level but has refused to rejoin the FCS ranks.

Big Sky Commissioner Doug Fullerton is not sold on the fact the Vandals are FBS for the long term. He has been outspoken about his desire to bring Vandal football back to the Big Sky, while Idaho officials are adamant about staying FBS.

Idaho believes the football money tied to television contracts, bowl games and the newly formed college football playoff system at the FBS level is worth the lessened success on the field. The Vandals are 4-32 in the FBS the past three years, including a 1-11 showing a year ago.

With the Sun Belt, Idaho football is entering (or re-entering) its fourth conference since joining the FBS in 1996.


Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 13 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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